The trophies lined up in the training hall bear witness to the past victories of the Manseh Taekwondo Team, but these days the team is but a shadow of itself. Only one member, the quiet reclusive captain Min-kyu, is even remotely capable. The coach Koh demands that the team reaches the semi-finals of big upcoming tournament, but Min-kyu is the only one who hasnt already given up.
When the team runs into a local group of street thugs, they are all beaten to a pulp, and the thugs are throw in jail. In sheer frustration Koh quits, saying theres nothing more he can do for the team. When he leaves he advices Min-kyu to come with him, but the young student will not abandon his team.
The school administration is in a rut. Still, they feel they cant give up on the team, because that would mean sacrificing 50 years of legacy. The Taekwondo team was once the pride of the school, and if they give that up they have nothing.
As a last desperate resort, the headmaster of Manseh turns to the thugs who beat up his team. He offers them a simple choice: Either be expelled from school, or join the Taekwondo team. Standing behind bars in prison the offer suddenly seems very appealing.
The thugs turn up at the training hall, but they are met with no love from Min-kyu, the only remaining member of the old team. He feels that the thugs degrade the team with their attitude, but unless he quits hell have to accept their presence.
But one thing is still missing: A new coach. The teams hardworking assistant Su-bin seeks high and low for anybody even remotely interested in the job. The desperate search yields only one candidate: The burnout junior coach Song Chung-kun, who volunteers simply because he has no other options.
The team only gets though the preliminary rounds because they intimidate the other teams, but suddenly the thugs realize they cant win the tournament this way, and they actually start to take the whole thing seriously.
Three of the thugs soon emerge as serious contenders. First theres the uncrowned king of the school, Yong-geak. Then theres his lieutenants, the solid Hyuk-soo, and the whimsical Jung-dae. Along with Min-kyu, and the understudy Sung-wan the 5 man fighting team of the Manseh School is ready to fight. Or are they?
Will the thugs be able to put their street fighting ways behind them and restore some dignity to the team? Can Min-kyu step up and work together with his new team-mates? And do any of them stand a chance against the powerful opponents that await them towards the end of the tournament?
Problems first. Praise later.
Spin Kick is in dire need of a hero, a lead character to focus the story. Initially Min-kyu seems to be the main character, but he is pushed to the sidelines when the thugs join the team, and then Yong-geak takes over the central position. The film goes back and forth between these two several times, unable to decide whod make the best lead.
Meanwhile Jung-dae gets a sweet backstory in the form of a subplot involving his pregnant girlfriend. She constantly nags him, but at the end of the day she loves him dearly, and she is willing to sacrifice nearly everything for her man.
Because of this backstory Jung-dae emerges as the most clearly defined character, which is a bit odd, since he is definitely NOT the hero. None of the other characters have anything resembling a backstory.
The film should have chosen which story it wanted to tell, and then stuck to it. It could have been the story of Min-kyu, who must see his beloved team fall apart, or it could have been the story of Yong-geak, who must put his wild days behind him, and finally step up and take some responsibility. The film choses to tell both those story - and more - all at the same time, but since it neglects the characters at the heart of each story, it ends up being almost meaningless.
Spin Kick persistently resists any opportunity to add layers to the story. Theres a hint at some potential alpha male showdown between Min-kyu and Yong-geak, but that doesnt last long. Theres also a hint at potential complication when Su-bin takes an interest in Yong-geak, clearly against Min-kyus wishes, but again the conflict is abandoned all too quickly.
I dont mind that the film has chosen an ensemble approach to the story, but when youre dealing with an ensemble of characters, its important to treat them as individuals. You cant just treat them as one big group with one unified goal. Each character must have their little idiosyncrasy, and their own hopes and dreams. Spin Kick wastes some good opportunities to flesh out the characters, and at the end of the day the emotional impact of the finale is lessened because of this.
It doesnt help either that all the boys look alike when they don their Taekwondo uniforms and helmets. They are virtually indistinguishable in the ring, and I soon found myself drawing little diagrams of stickmen on a piece of paper to keep track of the fighters.
And now for the praise.
First of all, the fights are great! Were not talking that wimpy kind of Taekwondo they play around with in the Olympics. This is real deal hard hitting stuff! Filmed beautifully in wide shot, so we can see the moves properly, with slowmotion inserts to focus on specific hits. The scenes have a great overall rhythm, and despite confusion as to whos fighting, I was still jumping up and down on my couch - as I often do during films like this - a testament to their effectiveness.
Second, every time the film fails, it does so in the most well-meaning appealing way, making it impossible for me to hate it. Even scenes that frustrated me, still brought a goofy smile to my face before they were over.
The film is littered with good little moments, spread out evenly across the film. Towards the end of the second act, when I was most in doubt about which way the film would go, Spin Kick hit me with a campfire dance-sequence, set to the live version of Live is Life (with Opus), and then I just had to give in. Is it as corny as it sounds? You bet.
The flaws of the story not withstanding, Spin Kick manages to bring a sense of joy and fighting spirit to the proceedings. The film loses points on the quality of the story, but wins them back because of the sheer eagerness with which its told.
The final tally on the score board says Spin Kick is the winner. The fight was brutal, and the outcome was in question till the very end. However, when the day is done, the audience will only remember one thing: Who walked away with the gold. Spin Kick prevails in the end, and lives to fight another day.