Yoo Ji-tae headlines as a superstar bowler who learns how to live again with the help of a young man on the autism spectrum.
A washed-up ten-pin champ and a young autistic man with mad bowling skillz find redemption, belonging and forgiveness in Choi Kook-hee’s Split, a familiar feel-good mentor-mentee tale (with a dash of "Save the gym/school/theater/playground from redevelopment" hokum thrown in) that works better than it has a right to. While not quite The Hustler in a bowling alley, Split is nonetheless engaging and genuine and avoids tipping into saccharine earnestness, almost aggressively so. Star Yoo Ji-tae should earn the pic some attention in Asia-Pacific if distributors can figure out how to position it, while overseas Split's prospects could be limited to select urban markets and streaming services. Its polish and mainstream tone will most likely keep most festivals at bay.
Cheol-jeong (Yoo, still best known as the captor in Oldboy) is a champion bowler, a star who graces televisions every weekend — or he was, until a bum knee knocked him off the pro circuit and into the underground scene, complete with high-stakes betting and bruising rivals. His partner and fellow (no word of a lie) bowling shark is Hee-jin (Lee Jung-hyun, Roaring Currents), who is deeply in debt to former pro and Cheol-jeong’s old nemesis Toad (Jung Sung-hwa). He is poised to secure the deed on her father’s bowling alley, which Hee-jin desperately wants to hold on to.
Despite Cheol-jeong’s bad leg (which of course involves a deep, dark, tragic moment from his past), the pair manage to bounce from alley to alley (does this make them rounders?) hustling other players and slowly scraping together Hee-jin’s debt. Then they meet Young-hoon (David Lee, Unforgettable), a lonely kid on the spectrum who is only able to bowl strikes. Before you can say “Ka-ching!,” Cheol-jeong is insinuating himself into Young-hoon’s life (which of course involves darkness and tragedy) and forging a fatherly, protective bond with him. Also on hand for added drama is Baek (Kwon Hae-hyo), another bowling team manager and minor gangster, but also a good guy who appreciates a rousing bowling match almost as much as he appreciates a lollipop.
As nutty as all that may sound, Split works surprisingly well, largely thanks to Yoo and Lee’s chemistry, and writer-director Choi’s sensitive take on Young-hoon’s autism. He very nearly lets the narrative get away from him, leaving it almost too long before Cheol-jeong and Hee-jin get a clue and finally rein in their rampaging insensitivity. Sure, there are probably scores of people out there blind to their own callousness, perhaps even in public office, but Split isn’t that kind of movie. It’s a feel-good redemption story with clear good guys and bad guys, and it’s crucial that Cheol-jeong is sympathetic. So much of the film is about manipulating a kid on the spectrum, with trust issues, who’s intensely alone, for personal gain. With no real acknowledgement of that it comes perilously close to becoming what it condemns. Choi, in his feature debut, saves the day just in time.
Nearly every frame in Split has a vibrant, gorgeously saturated palette, and the production registers at a typically high Korean standard. However, even with Cheol-jeong’s redemption via ten pins never in doubt, his slow acceptance of his affection for Young-hoon and Young-hoon's re-engagement with the world at large is really the backbone of the film. For whatever reason, Yoo has never scaled the Korean industry’s A-list ladder, which is a shame. He’s always managed a photogenic combination of mystery and vaguely dangerous charm, which should put him on a par with Hwang Jung-min and Kang Dong-won, but he’s stayed just on the periphery of superstardom. Here, he keeps Cheol-jeong from both emotional insubstantiality and excessive brooding and it gives the film enough emotional heft to raise it above its station.
Unfortunately, Choi lets the film down with a maddeningly, unnecessarily macho finale after overloading the third act with a thrown-match plot thread as well as a kidnapping conspiracy. It may be something of an unusual mentor-apprentice relationship drama, but Split defies giggles and delivers modest, if conventional pleasures. It didn’t need to be a thriller, too.
Production company: Opus Pictures
Cast: Yoo Ji-tae, Lee Jung-hyun, David Lee, Jung Sung-hwa, Kwon Hae-hyo, Moon Young-soo, Jang Hee-woong, Kim Hye-na
Director-screenwriter: Choi Kook-hee
Producer: Nam Sung-ho
Executive producer: Lee Tae-hyun
Director of photography: Baek Yoon-suk
Production designer: Lee Mi-kyoung
Costume designer: Choi Mi-youn
Editor: Kim Sun-min
Music: Choi Yong-rock
World sales: Opus Pictures