Champion – 2018
Written and Directed by Yong-Wan Kim
Starring Dong-seok Ma, Kwon Yui, Ye-ri Han
Don Lee is an American actor, but his heritage is Korean. He goes by the stage name Dong-seok Ma. He became instantly recognizable to me when he played the earnest tough in Train to Busan. There is an honesty in his eyes that belies the strength that is apparent in his arms and stature. When, one of the bad guy bosses of Champion describes his body as “efficient,” my lack of understanding of Korean culture makes me hesitate to assume it’s a mistaken translation. If by efficient, they mean “he’s likely to win in a fight, but would rather avoid the fight,” I would have to agree.
Champion starts off with Lee as Mark, a disgraced arm wrestling champion in America. He wiles his time as a night club bodyguard. He’s brought back into competition one night by his friend, Jin-Ki (Kwon) who convinces him to compete and win for a literal giant vase filled with cash. Things go sideways, of course. Lee loses his job and is relegated to working security at Moon Mart. His life story has been laced with sadness, so this drop in stature is nothing new.
Jin-Ki then calls from Korea and convinces Lee to head to the mother land for another arm wrestling contest. He sets him at a strange motel and takes him out to eat at a strange restaurant where a man and woman ask their blessings for their baby (more on this later). Jin-Ki also gives Mark the means to find his birth mother.
Mark, we find, was given up to adoption to a couple in Ohio when he is younger. How much younger is unclear. The couple died shortly there after, based on what we hear in Jin-Ki’s version of things. Somewhere along the line, Mark sees the movie Over The Top and is inspired to start competing in arm-wrestling tournaments. I have tried to watch this film, but let’s face it, Stallone was not making good movies very often by this point. Once that Kenny Loggins song hits your aural nerves, it’s over. But for Mark, at least, it worked to make him a Champion. The plot claims that it was “racism” that led to his fall from grace. That’s a broad accusation to lob into a general description of your subject’s past, but we’ll go with it for purposes of moving through the story.
When Mark searches for his mother, it literally is an uphill climb. His search leads him through a series of meet cute moments with a little boy and girl with whose family he eventually forms an incredibly sweet bond.
Lee’s performance is excellent in what could have been a play by numbers deal. His ability to show sweetness in a Shane-type role is profound. This film works remarkably well due to his ability to push forward as the strong man with a tender heart.
His is not the only good performance. Ye-ri is incredibly sweet as Soo-Jin, the mother of the two afore-mentioned adorable children. She is widowed, and in dire straits. She has a pride and strength, but her vulnerability fits right in with Mark’s willingness to help.
The film works as a drama with elements of action and some timely and clever comedy. When Mark takes the two kids out to eat with no money to speak of, the payoff works for that moment, as well as his earlier dining experience with Jin-Ki.
There are some real cinematic moments expertly filmed in the arm-wrestling scenes. The cinematography ratchets the tension exquisitely, and manages to avoid making most of the competitors into goons. Instead, outside of the first and last match, we have people with multiple dimensions, mostly good, just trying to see who’s better and who’s best.
Where it doesn’t work is the ham-handed bad guys, who exist solely to be easily dispensed by Mark while he’s pondering the beckoning of eternity. When your main character has time to think about the futility of existence while he’s beating up your toughs, it’s time to get better henchmen.
Then there is the training sequence that seems right out of Rocky IV, where Mark is shown in inter-cut scenes in an incredibly cool workout room with awesome weights and then in a junk yard with a car placed precariously on a hill so that he can pull it down with his arm. I told my 15 year old she could pull that one down. It’s goofy, but cool nonetheless.
This film has cemented me as a fan of Dong-seok Ma / Don Lee to the point where I shall be seeking his films out in the future. I think I must already have been doing so, though, since it was seeing his face on the poster that made me bring my Korean fan / expert daughter with me to this film anyway. It’s films like these that create lasting memories for us both.