When a festival describes a film as “a gloriously irreverent mash-up of White Men Can’t Jump, Rain Man, and Kingpin.” It makes it difficult for any film fan to turn away and skip that film. Having seen two of those three classics, I made sure to go out of my way to see Choi Kook-hee’s sports comedy/drama/thriller, Split.
Split follows Chul-Jong (Yoo Ji-Tae), a professional bowler whose career was derailed after a a brutal car accident. Now a bowling shark of sorts, Shul-jong is hustling for money with his gambling “agent” Hee-jin (Lee Jung-Hyun) and has no real respect for anybody. The two bet on bowling to sustain their lives and, for Hee-Jin, to win back her family’s bowling alley since she’s in debt to some thugs.
After getting a job at the alley, Chul-jong discovers a talented regular named Young-hoon (Da-wit Lee), a bowling extraordinaire with the talent to be a global bowling phenom. The catch is he’s autistic so Chul-jong must first develop a relationship with the young man so that they can compete together and earn money in order to help save the bowling alley.
Split is an entertaining sports dramedy that’ll delight most audiences. It’s a light hearted film full of heartfelt and saddening moments that are quickly turned into redemptive and entertaining ones. The constant back and forth between the two genres helps keep the pace of the film up, preventing those long dragging portions towards the end of the second act that many films suffer from. If it wasn’t for the solid pacing, I probably would have lost interest since the film clocks in at just over two hours.
SPOILER What I loved most about the film was the ending. It could have taken a very standard Hollywood approach where Chul-Jong survived with minor injuries. If the film wanted to be more dramatic, they would have allowed him to die which would have been pretty impactful but, I was incredibly satisfied with the middle approach. They paralyzed Chul-Jong which means that he gets to survive to watch his new “son” develop into an incredible bowler but he is no longer able to bowl himself. The process of becoming a father-like figure changed him for the better but getting injured allowed him to take the focus off himself and place that energy into another. That’s what I loved the final moments of the film. END SPOILER.
My only serious issues with the film were the cartoony villains, the thugs of bowling trying to thwart our leads from accomplishing their goals and not being able to take their wins and loses professionally, and the inability to flush out the story with Young-hoon’s parents and what happens with them and their relationship to their son towards the end of the film. They had clearly left an impact on their son but we only get a taste of what happened and what could happen in the future if he ever were to interact with them again.
With dramatic ups and downs, ridiculous bowling thugs, and a warm hearted evolution in character, Split is an endearing genre mashing homage to some of the many great off-beat sporting classics. It’s not a film that will likely be released stateside anytime soon, but it’s certainly worth watching if you stumble across it and happen to be a fan of Korean cinema.