Ma Dong-seok’s star has been on the rise since his scene-stealing supporting role in “Train to Busan”. After leading roles in varied films such as “Derailed”, the very popular action film “The Outlaws” and hit comedy “The Bros”, he is back in director Kim Yong-wan’s sports comedy “Champion”, which managed an impressive 1 million admissions in just 12 days after release at the domestic box-office.
Mark is a scary brute with a heart of gold who is uncomfortable in pretty much every situation except when he’s on his job as Security at a club or when he’s arm-wrestling. An adoptee and raised in the United States, Mark used to be World #10 in arm-wrestling but a false allegation of match-fixing led him to be disallowed from the League years ago. An offer from his friend Jin-ki leads Mark to leave the United States and travel to Seoul to compete in the Korea Arm-Wrestling Championship. Jin-ki, on the other hand, wants to fix matches with the help of their money-lending gangster sponsor Yoo Chang-su and earn money by gambling on them.
In Korea, Mark embarks on a quest to find his birth mother, but finds out that not only has she since passed, but also that he has a half-sister he didn’t know existed and an adorable pair of nephew and niece. As he prepares for the Championship, Mark meets and befriends Combo, the national #1 in arm-wrestling.
Director Kim Yong-wan, who used to be an in-demand assistant director, is making his feature debut with “Champion”, working off his own script. While he is adept at directing, his script-writing still needs a fair bit of work. Though it has a strong comedic core, the script follows a very cliched, predictable route. From the get-go, one can discern every direction the film might take. It also doesn’t help that arm-wrestling, as a sport, is unfortunately not as cinematic as director Kim Yong-wan might want us to believe. Much like the Sylvester Stallone film “Over The Top”, which this film unabashedly admits to being inspired by, it suffers from scenes of the sport that want to be exciting, but just don’t feel it.
Character development is another issue. Apart from the three leads Mark, Jin-ki and Soo-jin, the sister, every other character feels under-developed. It would have been interesting to know more about Combo, Yoo Chang-su or even the moneyman that he is trying to impress. But none of this matters, really. Because the film has Ma Dong-seok!
Ma Dong-seok, or Don Lee (as he is now trying to reinvent himself and is billed as here), is the very life of the film and carries it on his shoulders effortlessly. It’s as if Kim Yong-wan wrote the role with Ma in his head for the lead. It almost feels as if he were playing an extension of the real-life Ma Dong-seok. For an actor known for his strongman side-kick roles, his comedic timing is impeccable, as also evident in his previous film “The Bros”. A fair bit of it is also down to his chemistry with Kwon Yul, whose scheming, playful Jin-ki, for the most part, is as likeable as he is pitiable, if a little hammy at times. Han Ye-Ri is quite the surprise package as Soo-jin, the half-sister. She is the emotional backbone of the film and is quite impactful in her emotional scenes. Choi Seung-hoon and Ok Ye-ri are both adorable and scene-stealers as the nephew and niece respectively. It would be pretty fair to say that the actors and their earnest efforts really are what make the film, despite its story-telling shortcomings, quite an enjoyable effort.
The film scores technically, with the cinematography being pleasing to look at. The bright neon-soaked night scenes, in particular, look beautiful. The soundtrack is refreshing, most notably the high-octane music in the arm-wrestling scenes complementing the visuals perfectly. At an hour and 48 minutes, it’s not a long watch or one that overstays its welcome by any means, but the film could have done with a sharper edit, making the story flow more smoothly.
Films that rely heavily on their lead star often fall flat on their faces, but “Champion” is one of those rare ones that actually succeeds because of the star power its lead actor brings. Ma Dong-seok is slowly but surely becoming one of the most bankable actors in South Korea and one that is capable of single-handedly making an average film a fun watch.