Dir: Kwak Kyung-taek. Korea. 2002. 117mins
Like its hero, Kim Deuk-gu, who tried to become Korea's first boxing world supremo, Champion gives a very worthy account of itself, but ultimately fails to deliver a knock-out punch. With sumptuous looks and a determinedly physical central performance by Friend star Yoo Oh-sun, the feature has a fighting chance of scoring in the worldwide sales ring - but its international appeal is likely to be confined to fight fans and Asian film specialists. Outside of Asia and other places where Kim's name is well-known it may be penned into the corner of the festival circuit. Boasting a $7m budget that is chunky by local standards, Champion is the eagerly awaited fourth film by KT Kwak (aka Kwak Kyung-taek), director of coming-of-age ensemble piece Friend. That film grossed a colossal $44m at the Korean box office and set a standard for Kwak and backers Korea Pictures that would always be hard to live up to: in its first 10 days on release, Champion registered 1.21m admissions from 207 screens for a gross of some $6.7m.
Based on the true story of a penniless drifter who pulls himself up by his bootstraps to rise through the ranks of the local boxing scene and, in 1982, tilt at the world crown, Champion is fashioned more as a human drama than a sports picture. There are plenty of punishing boxing scenes and shots where the distinctive-looking Yoo has his face pulped beyond recognition, but director Kwak seems just as interested in tracking Kim's growth as a human being.
The film charts Kim's humiliating early training sessions, which inter-splice day-jobs of hard toil and more brutality, but curiously does little to explain his break-through into early success. Instead it becomes more consistent as he mounts a doomed challenge for the world title in a Caesar's Palace bout against Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini.
Kim's death soon after the fight is a devastating blow for a South Korea then trying to shape its own identity and find its feet on the world stage, although this point is not Kwak's main thrust. But his passing does belatedly bring into the picture Kim's estranged mother. His failure to recover from the coma also explains why the film is told from the viewpoint of a son Kim never met.
Best of all are the episodes where the hungry fighting machine discovers a softer side and starts to court a girl (Chae) from the office above the gym. He needs some of his gritty determination to overcome her initial reluctance and more still to avoid distraction from his pugilistic quest. Engaged to be married, he blossoms as a national champion and fleshes out a more rounded personality.
Kwak has switched cinematographer - this time using Guns And Talks' Hong Kyung-pyo - but like Friend before it, Champion is another visual treat. Kwak and Hong deliver a period, grainy feel and punishing fight scenes directed by renowned action director Jung Du-hong without resort to heavy-handed slow-mos or sepia tinting. They are aided by super performances by the beefed up Yoo and delicate screen debutante Chae. But Kwak parallels Michael Mann and Ali in creating a meaningful drama which is not his most overly commercial, for all the pumped-up budget.
Prod cos: Zininsa Film
Kor dist: Korea Pictures
Int'l sales: Cineclick Asia
Scr: KT Kwak (aka Kwak Kyung-taek)
Cinematography: Hong Kyung-pyo
Ed: Park gok-ji
Prod des: Cheong Sol Art
Music: Yoon Min-hwa
Main cast: Yoo Oh-sung, Chae Min-seo, Yoon Seung-won, Jung Du-hong, Kim Byung-seo