'Champion': Film Review

Wins the match, but only on points.

A former arm-wrestling champion returns to his native Korea and discovers a family he never knew he had in Kim Yong-wan's sports-themed dramedy.

If the 1987 Sylvester Stallone vehicle Over the Top proved nothing else (and it really didn't), it's that arm wrestling is not the most cinematic of sports. But that hasn't deterred Korean filmmaker Kim Yong-wan, who traverses similar territory to far more enjoyable effect in his starring vehicle for Ma Dong-seok (billed here as Don Lee). The massively proportioned star of Train to Busan delivers such a winning performance in the sentimental sports dramedy Champion that it makes it easy to overlook the film's generic aspects, which are legion.

Lee plays Mark, a Korean former arm-wrestling champion raised in the U.S. now supporting himself as a bouncer in bars and security guard in big-box stores. Lonely and unfulfilled, he takes up the offer of his old friend Jin-ki (Kwon Yul) to return to his native country and resume his sports career. To sweeten the pot, Jin-ki promises to provide the address of Mark's long-lost mother who gave him up for adoption.

Upon arriving in Korea, Mark heads to the address only to discover that his mother died years earlier. But he does come into contact with a family he never knew he had, namely a widowed half-sister (Han Ye-ri) and her adorable young son (Choi Seung-hoon) and daughter (Ok Ye-rin). The little girl is particularly impressed by her newfound uncle's size. "So big, he's like a beast!" she marvels to her sibling.

You can pretty much guess the rest of the story from here. Mark finds himself bonding with his sister and her children, his impassivity slowly worn away by his heretofore untapped feelings of nurturing. Meanwhile, he beats a variety of opponents in the ring (or whatever you call where arm wrestlers wrestle) but runs afoul of some shady gamblers who pressure him to throw an upcoming champion match.

To say that the storyline is cliched is giving it more credit than it deserves. But the film manages to succeed anyway, thanks largely to the quiet charisma and likeability of its physically imposing leading man who manages to hold his own even playing opposite the scene-stealing tykes. Somehow able to come across as both fiercely intimidating and deeply sensitive, Lee also displays a sly comic touch with his consistent underplaying. He also enjoys good chemistry with his female co-star, especially when their characters' relationship takes a surprising turn.

The arm-wrestling sequences, on the other hand, prove as uncompelling here as they were in the Stallone movie, which Champion has the good humor to acknowledge onscreen as a chief influence on its main character. It's too bad that Hollywood efforts don't have similar courage in acknowledging their own obvious inspirations.

Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Cast: Don Lee (Ma Dong-seok), Kwon Yul, Han Ye-ri
Director-screenwriter: Kim Yong-wan
Producer: Hong Dong-whan

108 minutes