Fight Nerd Cinema: South Korea’s “Champion” movie review

Welcome to another edition of Fight Nerd Cinema! This time, we take a look at a Korean film from 2002 called “Champion”. Directed by Kwak Kyung-taek, this movie dramatizes the true story of professional boxer Duk Koo Kim, who cemented himself as a legend in the sport in Asia, and literally changed the rules of the sport.

Spoiler-free Synopsis:

Duk Koo Kim (played by Yu Oh-seong) is a down-on-his-luck bum. A terrible hustler who can barely make ends meet, Duk makes the mistake of angering the wrong people who proceed to beat him up and rob him. Fate leads him to the Dong-Ah Boxing gym, where he meets the strict coach, Hyeon-ji Kim (Seung-won Yun), a martinet who beats his students if they lose, or just don’t win convincingly enough.

Duk quickly excels at the training, and through the discipline of the sport begins to grow into a more mature person. He soon decides that he wants to become a world champion boxer and promises to work harder until he attains his goal. Duk befriends Jong-pal Park after a drunken night of bonding over their mutual lack of fathers, and other fellow boxers from his gym, and continues on his career, eventually earning the Korean lightweight title and earning a greater reputation as well as bigger paychecks.

A new business opens upstairs from the gym which leads to Duk meeting Kyeong-mi Lee (Chae Min-suh), and after chasing down her bus to work one morning finally gets the nerve to ask her out. Despite their budding romance, Kyeong’s father denies their marriage since he refuses to allow a boxer to marry his daughter. The struggle ensues for both love and glory as Duk tries to put the woman he loves back in his life and pushes on towards his goal of becoming a world champion and eventually engaging in the greatest fight of his life against Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.

And that, dear readers, is where the spoiler-free synopsis ends. Hit the jump for the rest of the review!

The Inside Scoop:
While the synopsis was spoiler free, this section will technically not be. “Champion” is based on the true life story of Duk Koo Kim (or Deuk Gu Kim according to the subtitles), so serious boxing fans already know how this story ends, along with the entire nation of Korea. In my best efforts to keep this spoiler-free still, this film is a very accurate portrayal on the life of Duk Koo Kim, and rightly so as the story deeply affected the director.

According to Korean Film, Director Kwak Kyung-taek, the man who created Korea’s best-selling movie of all time “Friend”, was a teenager when he saw this fight on TV. Like many Koreans who lived through that era, the event left a strong impression on him, and years later he decided to make a film in memory of Kim’s determination and courage. “That was during an era when Korea was trying desperately to escape the poverty of the 60’s and 70’s, to cast off our reputation as a third world country,” Kwak said in an interview with the group. “For Koreans who remember him, Kim represents the last image of that generation and their hunger to succeed.”

Yu Oh Seong had his hands full when he was cast to play the famous boxer. Fresh off his role in “Friend”, Seong took up a serious training regimen to get into shape and be battle ready for the fight scenes. When the film came out, it was met with a very positive reception from many critics and moviegoers, many calling it the Korean version of “Rocky”. However, other critics had a hard time swallowing it purely based on director Kwak’s previous film which set the bar high and left many with expectations that could never be met.

The Breakdown:

Before I had researched the film, in the back of my mind I was comparing it to “Rocky”, and it definitely takes many elements of that masterpiece into consideration. Being set mainly in the late 70’s and 80’s, it evokes the same kind of feel that Rocky has both in its settings and in the way that it is filmed. It comes off like a movie that was shot during that period, and I mean that in the best way.

Oh-seong Yu captures an aloof awkward nature with Duk Koo Kim, paired up with the highly driven fighting spirit inside him. He goes one minute from a look of barbarism in the ring to having a smile on his face while jumping rope at the gym the day after his date. His transformation from a literal bum to one of the most important athletes in Korea is captured nicely, albeit rushed. “Champion” was Chae Min-suh’s first role in a film, but you can hardly tell from how she handles herself. Her relationship with Duk feels genuine from the moment they first meet all the way to the bitter end. Seung-won Yun is one of the harshest coaches you will see in a movie, but he does it for the good of his fighters and that shows through his stone-cold exterior.

The story seems overall pretty accurate, with the settings authentic to the time period. The audience loses themselves to the world the characters live in. Every little detail is done to keep you in that fantasy, with the exception of a single Coca-Cola vending machine in Las Vegas that has the modern logo on it, but that is purely nitpicking. I can also happily say that this movie is very accessible to Western viewers, other than a few scenes that may leave you scratching your head. Overall, the dialogue is believable and the pieces of the puzzle work together well. The only major problem is the pacing, which can’t decide on what’s important and what isn’t, and when it does decide it is detrimental to the flow of the film, but more on that later.

“Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting” – the action scenes:

The keyword when describing the fights in “Champion” is intense. The action scenes were directed by Jung Doo-hong, who played Sang Bok Lee in the film. Jung is an accomplished martial artist in his own right, and has pioneered “Koreanized” action, the rough-and-realistic Korean style of action and fight choreography that is beginning to be implemented in more Korean films. However, this is not a high-action martial arts fight film, but a plot driven piece with the fights as the payoff.

Most of the fighting we see is quick snippets of Duk and others in the ring. The majority of these comes from a montage near the end of the first act, and they easily draw attention and importance to the character, while showing us how he evolves from a nobody to a champ. Otherwise, the only other fight scenes we are get are when Duk is drunk (which I am grasping at straws to count), his sparring match with Sang, and the final fight.

The scene where Duk gets drunk and gets into a brawl at a night club is exceptionally done, purposefully disorienting and sad, giving us a glimpse behind the fighter and into the person. The scene is free of dialogue as well and relies purely on the emotion of the acting to draw you in.

The sparring match with Sang, which comes nearly 90 minutes into the film, is a very interesting and intense one. Staying in a realistic fashion, there is no background music or flashy effects. The story of this fight is told with faces, and is shot mostly in a first-person point-of-view to make the viewer feel like they are in the ring battling. Sadly, this fight is extremely short at around 20 seconds at most, and was disappointing to see it end so soon.

The final fight scene is Duk against Ray Mancini in Las Vegas, and is technically a two-part fight since the movie opens with the first punch of this fight, then after 100 minutes returns to the bout in the middle of the twelfth round. This scene is a prime example of how to film a boxing fight both in pacing & drama as well as showcasing the action itself. When Duk is bludgeoned with the blows that lead to the end of the fight, the scene slows down to a crawl, with church bells ringing in his ears.

Taking a page out of the sound effects from “Raging Bull”, the intensity of the scene is matched not with music but clever use of real noises to amplify the agony on-screen. In order to stay spoiler-free still, you will be surprised with how Kwak chose to end the last fight, and in my opinion depriving us of a pay-off like “Rocky”, but the ending is where those two stories take divergent paths especially with Duk being based in reality.

Final Verdict:

“I have the courage and will to fight until the end…”

“Champion” was a great boxing movie and delivered as a drama as well, but it’s far from being the best. The acting was solid and Yu Oh-seong was perfect for the role of the tragic boxer, with Chae Min-suh shining in her big-screen debut. The biggest problem for me was the pacing, as the movie tends to drag at certain places with seemingly no place to go despite having an outline based in real life. Parts that I expected more time to be spent on were glossed over.

While I was not disappointed by how the action scenes were shot, I was disappointed with how few there were and with how terribly short they were. As we established, this movie is not intended as an action movie but more along the lines “Rocky”, and while Stallone only delivered two fight scenes in the first film, they were the ultimate pay-off, while this movie continued to drag on after and downplay the boxing. “Champion” had more relationships to examine as opposed to “Rocky”, including Duk’s wife, coach, his rival at the gym, his relationship with his mother, and more, and that is where the film became messy and unfocused. The ending will leave you with mixed emotions and split most people down the middle as to whether you like it or not, and if it even works (and I’m still undecided on that).

Criticism aside, this is a very strong movie that will easily stand the test of time, with beautifully shot action and great directing. Problem is it takes too long to get to the meat of the matter, and when it does it can’t decide on what to do. With the parallel already made for “Rocky”, the movie does not flow nearly as well as that and the comparison is too much to ignore. Despite that, I still give this movie four out of five stars and highly recommend it to any combat sports fan. You’ll come to watch the fight scenes, but stay for the captivating story of a real-life legend!

What movie will be up next weekend? I have not decided yet, so I leave the floor open to the readers for your picks, preferably something streaming on Netflix so more people can see it easier!

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