It was a breakthrough role for Kang-ho Song, who I'd guess has been the biggest star in Korean cinema for some years now. It's a surprisingly subtle wrestling comedy that was a big hit on release. I liked it, but for some reason it didn't keep hold of me.
I think it's simply that I'm not that interested in wrestling. I don't hate it at all. I have no objection to its existence and in fact I thought the wrestling bouts here were highly entertaining and among the best scenes of the film. This is a good movie with humour that made me laugh and a strong lead performance... but I found it easy to drift away.
Some stories grab you by the throat and refuse to let you look away. This didn't do that. Kang-ho Song is a bank clerk who's bullied by his boss (Young-chang Song) and deserves it. You shouldn't like either of them, but Kang-ho is so charismatic in the role that he carries the film through sheer brio and you're keen to keep watching him anyway. Besides, Young-chang is the kind of boss whose only motivational technique involves tearing his employees to shreds and humiliating them in front of everyone, then later taking them by surprise and putting them in headlocks. Unsurprisingly, Kang-ho is on the lookout for other things to do with his time, especially if this might involve learning self-defence techniques.
Wrestling attracts him. He's a wrestling geek, in particular having always been a fan of a wrestler called Ultra Tiger Mask whose trademark was fighting dirty. (This guy really existed, incidentally. His name was Tomotsugu "Samson" Kutsuwada and he won the All-Asian Tag Team titles with Akihisa Takachiho, fighting as the Tojo Brothers.) Kang-ho has fond memories of Kutsuwada and his scallywag antics like smacking a nail-studded sandal into his opponents' faces. The only problem is that Kang-ho is in no kind of shape and nearly kills himself just trying to use the weightlifting equipment. When he first asks to be trained as a wrestler, the guy in charge (Hang-Seon Jang) chucks him out without a second thought.
Jang is square, by the way. I'm not talking there like a hippy, but a mathematician. He seems as wide as he's tall. I was sure his physique meant I was looking at a real ex-wrestler, but to my surprise the guy's an actor with a respectable career.
Anyway, you can guess where this is going. The title refers to the fact that Kang-ho is following in Kutsuwada's footsteps and choosing the stage persona of a slimeball who cheats all the time, which leads to horror-comedy when Kang-ho doesn't realise he's wielding a real fork instead of a wooden prop, and so on. Ouch ouch. Eaaaargh. The wrestling scenes are very good, in fact, and in addition largely done without stunt doubles. In addition to giving one of the funniest performances of the year, Kang-ho also did most of his flips, drops and body slams for real. My respect for the guy just went even higher than it was already, which is saying a lot because he's been excellent in all the very different films I've seen him in and here he's every bit as good. He captures both the pathos and the comedy of this loser, always keeping him real. His "I am a twat" mobile phone call made me laugh out loud, as did his attempt at sneaking into work late.
This wasn't his debut, mind you, but until now (No. 3, The Quiet Family, Swiri) he'd been a supporting actor. However in 2000, he got leading roles in The Foul King and Joint Security Area
, after which he went on to take the world of cinema by storm with films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Memories of Murder
, The Host, The Good The Bad The Weird
. He's not a showy actor, mind you. He wasn't professionally trained and he doesn't give me that slightly clinical sense of precision you tend to get from top British thespians, for instance. Instead he disappears into his roles and brings them to explosive life in a manner that isn't showing you the acting, if you know what I mean. He doesn't demonstrate. He just becomes. Here what he does is silly and yet also grounded and truthful, not to mention also very funny.
I've also seen this writer/director's work before. It's Jee-woon Kim's second film after The Quiet Family (1998), which was warped by Takashi Miike into The Happiness of the Katakuris
. Both were highly successful and he's since gone on to spectacular fare like The Good The Bad The Weird
(outstandingly good Korean action blockbuster) and I Saw the Devil (Korean serial killer film... be afraid).
Would I recommend this? Difficult. I thought it was good, but there's something about a loser trying to become The Foul King that subtly repelled my attention. However it was a critical and commercial hit from a director who's done other films I've thought were no less excellent and far more attention-grabbing. A lot of people have loved it and I can't deny that it's often funny, but I can also see that either the wrestling or the "life of a loser" bits of the film might fail to grab certain people. This won't work for everyone, to an even greater degree than other movies. It didn't fully for me either, but I still admire it.