NYAFF 2017: SPLIT Hits Hard and Picks Up the Spare

So Basically Korea Has Remade KINGPIN as an Edgy Austistic Savant Dark Comedy

Split recently screened at the New York Asian Film Festival.

Split is an immensely entertaining Korean bowling/comedy/autism/crime film that somehow manages to be hilarious, vicious, and ultimately inspiring.

Chul-Jong was once a championship caliber bowler, but was cut down in the prime of his career. After attempting to cheat, he was attacked in retaliation — and the resulting injury changed everything.

These days he ekes out a meager existence, reduced to hanging out in bowling alleys, hustling and gambling. While his best bowling days are far behind him, he still has an eye for talent. When he spots an awkward young man named Young-Hoon bowling an incredible game, he decides to take him under his wing and turn him into a champion and in the process get out from under the thumb of his own nemesis — but the kid’s not interested.

If that sounds at all familiar, it’s probably because that’s the plot of the Farrelly Brothers’ comedy Kingpin. I haven’t found any confirmation that Split is characterized as a direct remake, but it wouldn’t surprise me — the similarities are striking. That said, it differs in several key ways — most prominently in that Young-Hoon is an autistic savant.

Young-Hoon is a really interesting character. Besides the nervous tics, his entire bowling ritual is humorous — his posture and movement are awkward, he shoots straight down the center, and he can only bowl in lane 10, and only with his own ball — a pink women’s ball. But he isn’t the butt of the movie’s jokes; while at first Chul-Jong only wants to take advantage of him, the pair bonds and their roles become more familial and mentorly. As we learn more about Young-Hoon’s world, we see his life has been one of abuse, loss, and daily struggle.

The tone shifts remarkably in the film’s latter half, going down a much darker path as the two men, along with their lady friend Hee-Jin, get involved in the cutthroat underworld of high stakes gambling, already deep in debt and gambling even more to get out from under it. Split is ostensibly a sports comedy, but it’s also fraught with deep menace and the threat of violence.

“Idiot savant” fiction can be both trite and offensive if handled insensitively, perpetuating a bizarre stereotype that autistic people are weirdos with superpowers rather than real human beings who struggle with a complex disability. Split does good job of avoiding this, showing the fantasy as entertainment, but also the grounded reality. Young-hoon is a really wonderful and lovable protagonist that the audience wants to take interest in and cheer for.

A/V Out

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