Not to disappoint but Champion is about Korean arm wrestling, not a feel good Yorkshire story, not even one about arm wrestling. But it is Champion.
The wonderful Ma Dong-seok (“Train To Busan“, “The Outlaws“) stars and, despite some dodgy directing by Kim Yong-wan (“Return Match (Short)”, “Daytime Moon”), who insists on spinning the camera in circles like someone with a new toy, manages to inject a whole lot of heart into this fairly run of the mill story, also written by Yong-wan.
It borrows heavily, and even references, the Sylvester Stallone movie Over The Top, as well as countless other movies about loners who get one last throw of the dice, one last chance at redemption, whilst also finding love or, as in this case, a family.
Mark (Dong-seok) is living a reasonably peaceful life in LA until his friend Kwon Yul (“Whisper (TV)”, “The Hunt”) turns up. Yul is a chancer, always looking for the next get-rich-quick scheme, this time he thinks he’s found it, back in Korea.
He convinces Mark to fly over and begin arm wrestling again, but Yul is using it as a means to get rich, playing with gangsters and betting money he doesn’t have. He isn’t all bad though, he does manage to find Mark’s original family home whereby Mark finds a sister, and a niece and nephew, living there. A family he never knew he had.
At first, this family becomes a distraction, to both Mark and us, the viewer. Dong-seok plays Mark as an awkward-in-his-own-skin sort of character, a giant of a man who is timid and shy. Up to now though, we’ve seen him handle himself on more than one occasion but that pretty much stops when Han Ye-ri (“Age Of Youth (TV)”, “Worst Woman”) and her two children enter proceedings.
However, as this story about Mark’s past and who Ye-ri and her children are to Mark begins to blossom and take centre stage, the whole film flips and you become far more interested in this and less in the Karate Kid style arm wrestling tournament that’s taking place, or the gangster trying to sabotage things.
Dong-seok and Ye-ri are beautifully awkward around each other whilst her children are just, well, children. Breaking down social barriers and calling a spade a spade or, in this instance, their uncle a gorilla.
Champion certainly won’t win any awards for originality and it is far from Dong-seok’s best film (I urge you not to make this the only film of his you see, as good as he is in this, he’s much, much better in other things).
However, it is a lovely story, packed full of emotion and heart and some laughs too, though they do wear a bit thin after a while.
There are cheesy bad guys, a big-baddy to tackle at the end and we even get some Rocky-esq training montages thrown in for good measure. Think Rocky in the mountains and Drago in his high-tech gym, shooting up, in Rocky IV and you’re not far from the mark.
Champion is a bit of a mess story-wise and has some interesting choices in the editing department too, but it will drag you in emotionally if you stick with it, and you should, you really should.
Also published on Medium.