Review: Shin Han-sol’s “Art of Fighting”

The title of Shin Han-sol’s 2006 debut feature, Art of Fighting, proves to be quite an ironic one, since the fighting on display is anything but artful. Byeong-tae (Jae Hee, from 3-Iron), a supremely underachieving student who has been transferred to a succession of trade schools, is a willowy and delicate young man who finds himself the punching bag of bullies at each school he has been sent to. His father (Kim Eung-soo) is a distant presence, a widowed police officer who is at a loss as to how to communicate with his son. Byeong-tae assiduously studies martial-arts manuals to learn how to fight back, but he is unable to translate the advice found in these books to the real world. While attempting to learn the technique of fighting with coins, he comes across Oh Pan-su (Baek Yoon-sik), a man with a vaguely shady past who reluctantly agrees to become his mentor. Art of Fighting at first glance seems to follow the familiar outlines of The Karate Kid and countless martial arts student-teacher scenarios. However, where this film departs from its models is the often cringe-worthy brutality on display. Absent are the balletic, graceful fighting moves of classic wuxia pian films; instead there are many scenes of brutal street fighting. Bats, knives, and kicks to the head and stomach are the lingua franca of this film. Adult authority is almost completely absent; a rank social Darwinism of kill or be killed abounds here, as Byeong-tae is constantly beaten to a pulp in teacher-less classrooms. The only instance of teacher discipline is merely an act of revenge by one instructor who had a flowerpot thrown at his head during one of the gang fights.

Pan-su’s instructions for Byeong-tae consist of little technique, but an attempt to encourage Byeong-tae to get over the fear resulting from constantly being beaten by several people at once, and to be willing to do whatever is necessary to prevail. As Pan-su constantly reminds his student, there are no rules in fighting: everything is acceptable, from sand in the eyes to using whatever is around – a chair, a broken bottle – as a weapon. What is most important is being the first to strike. Shin makes sure the viewer feels what this sort of dirty fighting is like, a desperate quest to subdue your opponent as viciously and quickly as possible. Despite Pan-su’s instructions, Byeong-tae, to the film’s great credit, does not instantly gain invincibility over his enemies; he still holds back, gripped by his fear. Also raising this film above its standard scenario are the performances of its leads. Baek essays his role as the wizened, world-weary mentor effortlessly, as he has of late become the go-to actor for this sort of role (The Big Swindle, Tazza, Like a Virgin). Jae Hee’s quavering vulnerability and doe-like eyes convey his character’s isolation and quiet desperation quite effectively.