NYAFF 2017 Review: Split (South Korea 2016)

The festival program describes Split as a mash-up of Rain Man and Kingpin, and that’s exactly right.  The problem is that there is way too much Rain Man, and way too little Kingpin.  It’s a bowling dramedy, but weighted heavily on the drama side, and the hackneyed Rain Man premise can’t sell the drama effectively.  I really disliked this movie for about the first hour and a half.  It’s well crafted on a technical level and well performed, but shameless and manipulative in the service of an obnoxious, dated plot.  And then, somehow, in the last half an hour, Split became SO shameless and SO manipulative that I kind of circled back around into enjoying it as an massively overripe piece of cheese.  I still don’t much like it, but at least it left me with a good, albeit pungent, taste in my mouth.

The great Yoo Ji-Tae, of Oldboy and Attack the Gas Station, stars as a down-on-his-luck bowler eking out a living as a hustler after an injury destroyed his professional career.  And don’t get me wrong, Yoo is good, and makes the most out of his overwritten part.  But all of that is overbalanced by the cloying performance of David Lee as Young Hoon, an autistic bowling savant whom Yoo takes under his wing.  This will sound horrible (and please excuse my lack of political correctness), but all I could think of when watching Lee’s acting was the immortal words of Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder when he tells fellow actor Ben Stiller to “never go full retard.”  This is exactly the type of cringe-worthy, saintly performance that Tropic Thunder so rightly mocked, and it makes much of the drama painfully unbearable.

Fortunately, at some point, perhaps realizing that the film was going nowhere fast, the filmmakers apparently threw up their hands, said “What the hell!” and turned the third act of the film into a ludicrously silly caper/revenge/gangster film revolving around the high stakes world of underground bowling.  And with that, I was back on board.  Still could have lived without the autism pantomime, probably could have lived without seeing what felt like a thousand shots of people bowling strikes, but at least I got some entertainment out of this ungainly beast.

2 out of 4 stars (Average).  Split is playing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on July 9.


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