"It's only towards the end of the film that we begin to realize that the most interesting aspect of Kim Deuk-ku's story was not his life, but his untimely death."
- Mighty Peking Man
The Champion (2002)
Director: Kwak Kyung-Taek
Cast: Yoo Oh-Seong, Chae Min-Seo, Yoon Seung-Won, Chung Doo-Hong, Kim Byung-Seo, Ji Dae-Han
Running Time: 117 min.
Plot: The true story of Kim Deuk-ku, a young impoverished boy who moved out of his small village and into the city to train as a boxer. As he gets older, his talent grows as well, until he finds himself in America fighting the world's best as a pro.
Availability: This title is available at HKflix.com
MIGHTY PEKING MAN'S REVIEW: Kwak Kyung-Taek, director of the mega-hit "Friend", returns with one of the most anticipated Korean films of 2002 - "The Champion". Based on the life and times of the late Kim Deuk-ku (played by Yoo Oh-Seong of "Friend" and "Beat"), a poor village boy who spent most of his teenage years hustling in the streets to make a living. Changing his direction in life, he would soon discover his real passion was in boxing. Determined and focused, Kim Deuk-ku went on to becoming a professional light-weight boxer in Korea. However, his dreams of becoming a world-wide champ were cut short. In 1982, tragedy struck during a fierce match with Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. After collapsing in the 14th round, Kim Deuk-ku slipped into a coma and was pronounced dead 3-days later. This infamous bout made world news, stunned Korean fans and made Kim Deuk-ku an instant legend.
20-years later, Kim Deuk-ku's story became film.
After Kwak Kyung-Taek's "Friend", it was difficult not to expect something great from his follow-up feature - with that said, "The Champion" was a disappointment. The main and crucial problem was with the weak screenplay. I'm certainly in no position to call Kim Deuk-ku's story uninteresting, but with the way it's portrayed in the film, it certainly was. After a great opening sequence and subplot that explored his street-hustling, there was hardly anything that caught my attention. Most of the film's middle portion, which consisted of rookie fights and training sessions, were slowly paced and uninspiring. I hate to admit this, but the love story between Kim Deuk-ku and Lee Kyung-mi (Chae Min-Seo) seemed to be the most gratifying as far as cinematic entertainment. The most memorable scene was actually a short one; It involved a jogging Kim Deuk-ku trying keep up with a bus that was carrying Lee Kyung-mi. Playing over this was a song from a well-known Korean movie called "Robot Tae-Kwon V". The result was rather effective and left echoes of Sly Stallone running to the "Rocky" theme.
It's only towards the end of the film that we begin to realize that the most interesting aspect of Kim Deuk-ku's story was not his life, but his untimely death. Sad but true - even the film admits this with the heavenly visuals and dream sequences that take over the last 15-minutes or so (not to mention, the opening sequence foreshadowing the tragedy).
The positive side of "Champion" lies in the brilliant performances, solid direction and beautiful cinematography. Yoo Oh-Seong, one of Korea's most talented and intense actors, is pure gold. Newcomer Chae Min-Seo, who plays the love-interest, is a definite natural. The overall visuals and styles are beautiful, especially the scenes involving snowfall. The boxing action is well choreographed and believable. Kwak Kyung-Taek is no doubt a fine director, and none of above would have been possible without him. It's just too bad all the goodness of the film is overshadowed by the weak storyline.
To sum it all up, I'm glad I watched it - even if it were just for the performances alone. I'd probably only recommend it to hardcore boxing enthusiasts that are familiar with or had actually watched the fatal fight between the two men back in 1982. As far as recommending it for overall entertainment purposes, probably not. With all due respect to Kim Deuk-ku, "The Champion" seems like a poor excuse for a Korean version "Raging Bull" or "Ali" just because a Korean boxing legend exists.
MIGHTY PEKING MAN'S RATING: 6/10