Thursday, January 29, 2015

Foul King (2000)

Director: Kim Jee-woon
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Jang Jin-Young

Song Kang-ho stars as Dae-ho, a stressed-out loan officer who is plagued by two problems at work. First, he's one of the two worst employees in the whole bank. Second, his boss is an abusive, overbearing ass who likes to prove his points about the cutthroat nature of life by sneaking up on Dae-ho and slapping on a vicious headlock. But our beleaguered hero's woes don't end there. The teenage thugs who hang out on his route back home enjoy beating him up and chasing him. His father constantly harasses him about being such a twit, and the co-worker upon whom he has a crush doesn't even realize he's alive, despite the fact he sits only a chair or two down from her. His only solace from the many trials of life comes in the form of watching professional wrestling.

When Dae-ho is thrown out of a meeting for trying to sneak in late, he wanders the streets and ends up outside a run-down gymnasium advertising that it will train professional wrestlers. Dae-ho is interested but too chicken to go in at first. The gym isn't much to look at, and neither are the only two students. Only slightly more impressive is the gym's owner and primary coach, a down on his luck, out of shape has-been who, in his day, had been one of the most popular "heel" wrestlers of all time, Ultra Tiger Mask. Age and bad financial decisions have not been kind to him, however, and he spends his days now slurping instant ramen and drinking cheap beer in the back of the gym.

Dae-ho, however, is undaunted by the shoddy nature of the gym, and begs the coach to take him on as a student, or at least teach him how to get out of a headlock. If he can just learn that, then he'll be able to best his boss, and surely things will turn around for him. The coach, however, is less than impressed with the clumsy, somewhat doughy young man and tells him to get lost. When the coach gets a visit from a big-time promoter on the Korean pro wrestling circuit, things change. The big-time guy represents the hottest young prospect in Korea, Yubiho, who is looking to make a name for himself by breaking into the international big leagues. What Yubiho needs for an upcoming match is a good heel to play off of, a dastardly wrestler who specializes in cheating. The promoter gives the coach the script for the match and tells him he better come up with someone. Knowing that his two current students, Taebaik and Odai are about as useful as a couple sacks of potatoes in the ring, he decided to give Dae-ho a try.

Unfortunately, Dae-ho isn't exactly an in-ring wonder, and they have little time to give him any formal training. The coach's daughter, Min-young, is his principal teacher, which Dae-ho is skeptical of until she throws him to the ground and slaps an excruciating armbar on him. She does the best she can with him, and slowly but surely everyone realizes that Dae-ho's not half bad once he gets the hang of things, especially since his primary function will be to stumble around, cower, and cheat. He makes his in-ring debut at a lo-fi indy event against one of the other students, and things go well up until the point Dae-ho, who is given the ring persona of the Foul King, accidentally grabs a real fork instead of the painted wooden prop fork he's supposed to use.

When Dae-ho discovers the coach's old Ultra Tiger Mask mask, he decides to adopt it as his own. Hoping that it will help him find the same courage outside the ring that he has inside, he dons the mask and hits the streets. His first stop is to soundly kick the asses of the young punks who picked on him earlier. Subsequent efforts to talk to his father while wearing the mask and to his co-worker Miss Jin don't go as well, as both people think he's crazy or drunk. Complicating things is the fact that Dae-ho realizes that he's actually talented enough in the ring to be more than a cheating comedy wrestler. His chance comes the night of his match against Yubiho, a lean, muscular high flyer. It's The Foul King's first match beyond the county fair indy circuit, and even though Yubiho wants to stick to a well-plotted script for the match, Dae-ho is determined to turn it into something more than a showcase for his opponent.

What's most striking about this film is that it is very conventional while at the same time being very subversive in how it handles the conventions. There are plenty of cliches here -- the young hero who is so blinded by his crush on an unobtainable woman that he fails to see the dream girl right under his nose, the washed up coach with one last shot, the big final match. But it's how it handles the conventions that really sets it apart. The film never really gives you the convenience of a nicely wrapped up closure of events. In the end, Dae-ho and Min-young still have not hooked up. His final match is not what's expected from such a film. And his final confrontation with his boss, while hilarious, is not exactly what Dae-ho was hoping for. In this way, the film manages to rise above conventions and deliver something fresh and consistently funny. You know what is supposed to happen in this sort of film, but you never know if what is supposed to happen is what will actually happen.

The movie is a perfect blend of romance, action, and comedy, with all three ingredients well prepared. This is one of the only slapstick films I've seen where slapstick comic violence results in very lifelike bloodshed. It's like watching an episode of the Three Stooges where Shemp would get stuck in the head with a fork, and instead of just yelling "Oww!" a splattering of blood would gush from the wound as he passed out and had to be hauled to the back.

Song Kang-ho is impossible not to like and root for as the goofball loser Dae-ho, especially since he rarely gets what he wants. The supporting characters are well presented, with the abusive boss being the best. He's just over-the-top enough so that you really despise him, but he's not so cartoonish that he becomes simply laughable. He's just a dick, plain and simple, and a very believable one at that, which makes you cheer for Dae-ho all the harder. Min-young and the rest of the down-and-out indy wrestlers are great as well.

Most of the action is, of course, in the ring. For the most part, the wrestling is humorously bad, just as it is supposed to be. Odai and Taebaik look like every out of shape wrestler on the indy circuit who can't even be has-beens because there never were nor will be in the first place. Unlike American movies that focus on the world of professional wrestling, The Foul King is accurate in its portrayal of the seedy, harsh, and often destitute lives most wrestlers endure. While certainly focusing on the comedic aspects of such a life, it never fails to treat the dedication of wrestlers and the wrestling business with anything but respect.

It deftly deals with the fact that being scripted and being trained doesn't mean the wrestling matches don't abuse the wrestlers. Wrestlers -- especially indy wrestlers -- bust their asses, and no matter how well you know how to take a bump, coming off the top rope onto a concrete floor hurts. We go into the match between Foul King and Yubiho knowing it's scripted, like most any wrestling match is, but we also see, in a very accurate way, that the match still involves two dedicated workers getting the unholy hell beaten out of them. It's gritty, bloody, and very true to what lo-fi wrestling is like in real life.

The Foul King is funny, touching, well-crafted, and even brutal at times. Song Kang-ho also refused to use stunt doubles for the wrestling matches, even though it would have been easy to do so since he wore a mask. Instead, he got a serious taste of method acting by going through wrestling training himself and learning to do some pretty high-risk style moves. That's the icing on the cake, really, as this movie, like a slew of other Korean hits, delivers everything I want in a movie.

Make or Break: The wrestling, or more accurately, the fact that the movie handles indy circuit wrestling in a realistic fashion -- as a scripted business that is, never the less, incredibly demanding, brutal, and entertaining.

MVT: Song Kang-ho. The man is golden. Even in lackluster films (and this is by no means a lackluster film), he makes the most of every character, especially when that character is a bit of a sad sack.

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