Battered by symbolism, 'Champion' labors

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Battered by symbolism, 'Champion' labors

"Chingu" (Friend, 2001) brought 8 million viewers to the cinemas and is Korea's most popular movie ever. When that film's director, Gwak Gyeong-taek and its star, Yu O-seong, teamed up for another film, "Champion," the union generated great expectations.

Released last Friday, "Champion" is not as good as "Friend," though it has its moments.

"Champion" tells the story of the Korean boxer Kim Duk-koo, who never regained consciousness after his 1982 fight against the American boxer Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini in Las Vegas.

Gwak saw the Mancini fight when he was 17 and was unable to let go of the memory. He has said several times that Kim picked him to tell the story on the screen. Prior to making "Friend," Gwak struggled with a comedy and a science-fiction thriller. A human drama was the right choice for a follow-up to "Friend."

The film opens with a scene from the 1982 bout, with Kim Duk-koo holding his own against Mancini, something that was totally unexpected. Then the camera suddenly goes back to Korea in the 1970s, showing Kim at an early age in a remote village in Gangwon province. A young boy runs out of his house and takes a bus to begin a new life in Seoul. From then on, the film goes back and forth between Kim's past and present -- his childhood in the country town along the seashore and his youth spent at the bottom of the social ladder in Seoul.

In the big city, Kim shines shoes, sells chewing gum, works construction jobs. Pent-up anger from a tough childhood hovers. When he sees a gym flyer soliciting young boxers, Kim finds a way to release the rage.

At this point Gwak spices the film with a romance. Kim falls in love at first sight with Lee Young-mi, an accountant working near his gym. Lee changes Kim's everyday motto from "Women are traps" to "Women are stepping stones." Though it was not easy for Kim to win Lee's heart because of the social stigma against boxers, she finally opens her heart to him and becomes his fiancee.

Kim's boxing progresses steadily until he earns the Asian championship. Then he sets his aim higher -- a world championship bout against Mancini. "I'm not going there to die," Kim promises his fiancee. "I'll be back as a champion for sure."

About one-third of the film's running time is filled with bloody in-ring combat. If you're a boxing fan, you will love it. If not, boredom likely will set in. Yu comes across as a fine reincarnation of Kim: He looks like a boxer. Chae Min-seo, as Kim's fiancee, comes off flat.

To deal with a plot that has such a well-known ending was a tough task for Gwak. "Champion" is a human drama, so Gwak chose to ignore chronology in tackling Kim's life. The result is something of a jigsaw puzzle. Gwak webs a lot of flashbacks of Kim's childhood. He introduces images of the sea a number of times in the film, as metaphors. The flashbacks are often baffling and the sea metaphors abrupt.

Though "Champion" is a quality work, Gwak needed to spend more time on storytelling and less on symbolism.

by Chun Su-jin

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