Friday, January 22, 2010


One of the big problems with bio-pics is that they have to compress what is generally a complicated life into two hours, frequently attempting to make a story arc out of something that generally doesn't arc in a predictable fashion. As a result, often things are glossed over and the life no longer resembles what really happened. One of the problems with sports movies is the need to keep people rooting for the preferred team or player. In this case, it means that the good guy is given artificial obstacles and the opposing characters are made out to be unfortunately evil. Yet, combine the two and you'll get something like Raging Bull, the famous boxing movie starring Robert DeNiro and directed by Martin Scorsese which does not fall into the typical traps. Or, you'll get a movie by someone who has watched Raging Bull numerous times, Champion which avoids some of the traps, and falls into others.

Champion is, naturally, about a champion, Korean boxing champ Kim Deuk-gu, as played by Oh-seong Yu. Duek-gu isn't very smart, and at the beginning he's not even that good, but he devotes himself to training and steadily rises through the ranks in Korean boxing to become the Pan Asian champion, and challenges a man named "Boom Boom" Mancini (Matt Phillips) to the world championship. Fans of boxing and/or Warren Zevon might be able to figure out the ending, but that's only a small part of the story. Instead, the film keeps focus on the middle, and the type of person Duek-gu was.

He's an interesting character in that he's not very complex, but there's something very honest about him. He's an admirable figure simply because he sticks to his goal, as though he realizes that it's all he can do, all he knows, and the only way he can make a living. He uses it to better his life, and while he seems to realize where boxing will lead him - as does everyone else, quietly - he continues to do it because he knows that it's something he can strive to be good at.

As a result, we like Duek-gu even though he's never made out to be the explicit underdog. In fact, one of the strengths of the film that, no matter what happens, we're presented with a man who is genuinely good at what he does, or is good at what he does after he gains some confidence. In fact, the climactic match is presented as completely even. We care about him because he came from nothing and has bettered himself. Yes, it does arc conveniently, but his life did aim directly towards the climactic fight, so it makes sense.

Another bonus is that it's a very well made movie. As mentioned before, director Kyung-Taek Kwak has clearly watched Raging Bull several times. There are shots throughout that are directly ripped from the film, and he's clearly inspired by the way boxing was shot for it. I am not complaining, because Raging Bull was one of the best boxing films yet made, partially because of how the boxing was shot, and this just takes it a few steps further. Kwak has a great visual sense, and there are frequently absolutely beautiful shots. While it does have some amazing boxing sequences, outside of the ring it is equally well done, in particular a completely devastating tracking shot near the end of the film.

It does follow most of the beats you would expect from a sports film, but it does it so well, and makes one care about the characters so much, it makes you forget that the beats are there in the first place. Even if it compresses a complicated life into two hours, it makes one care about that life, and about other people who have similar lives and careers. While there were far reaching effects to the fight at the end, there's really only one that's mentioned within the film, and after two hours with Deuk-gu, it's the only one that really matters.

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