I went into the Korean film Champion (2002) totally blind. What I found was a subject matter perfect for me. Champion is a bio pic about boxer Kim Duek-gu (or Kim Duk Koo), who was killed from injuries he suffered fighting Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini. The bout happened in 1982, years when I was a young kid just starting his lifelong passion for the sport. The tragedy was a big news item and lead to some major boxing reform, including improved medical tests, many states adopting the 3 knockdown and standing 8 counts rules, and the across the board limitation that championship/pro bouts could no longer be 15 rounds (Kim Duek-gu was ko'd in the 14th round).
Champion is a straightforward bio pic, one with a lean towards the inspirational rather than a "warts and all" portrait. Actually, describing the plot is pretty damn simple. If you've seen a handful of sports pictures, you get the basic set-up. Portrayed by actor Oh-sueng Yu (Attack the Gas Station!), Kim Duek-gu is shown as a rural kid who grew up poor without a father or much of an education. At a young age he ran away to the city where he was more or less a street kid barely scraping by. Then he walks into a boxing gym and the sports discipline shapes him and he finds a passion in life. He rises as a champ only to die on his biggest stage.
Sadly, Champion plays it a little too by the book and saccharine. I think Kim's being a treasured national hero might have kept them from really delving deeply into the man. Champion sketches him in such oh-so humble, lukewarm terms, you really wonder, why bother? It is a portrait who's sole color is basic white.
He simply, in the film, isn't that interesting. Some attempts are made to add some friction, like Kim surpassing the gyms number one, favored fighter (but instead of a rivalry they quickly become best friends) and there is also his love interest (who rebuffs him because of his profession but, of course, he quickly wins her over). The most fiery scenes in terms of his personal dynamism are a rousing public speech prior to the Mancini (cast as some Calvin Klein-looking dude) fight and his actual brawling.
Looking up the credits after I watched the film, I found it came from director Kyung-Taek Kwak, the man responsible for two polarizing efforts, the big scale critical fizzler Typhoon and the smaller scale critical darling Friend. The latter was a film I really enjoyed, but with Champion he really plays to some blatant commercial pandering of the worst kind, especially considering that the film is about a real person yet shows his life in a very unreal light. The films final scene sums up the rah-rah bottom line: a Korean youth (Kim's son?) goes into the boxing gym and Kim's ghost appears hitting that heavy bag alongside the other boxers still serving as an inspiration. Yes, but like the shallow film, he's an inspiration more as a phantom ideal, not as an actual man. And the worst point of all, from a factual standpoint, the film makes Kim such a depthless man, its like his in ring death was the only thing substantial or involving about his life.
As far as the match that took his life goes, I've seen it and Kim Deuk-gu Vs. Ray Mancini was not a horrific fight. The aftermath has most assume it was a brutal one-sided beatdown. While Kim was outclassed because Mancini landed more solid blows and threw more punches, Kim was rarely taking a backward step in the fight and even in the later rounds was taunting Mancini and using some roughhouse tactics. In the 13th round, Mancini starts by blistering Kim for the first third, only to have Kim come back and dominate the remaining minutes. So, it wasn't like he showed signs of being relentlessly beaten to death. This film paints both men as bloodied and battered in the end, but in reality Mancini wasn't terribly busted up or bloodied, while Kim had some swelling and bruising. So, hindsight affects this film just as it has most post-fight accounts and public perception of a ill-fated match.
The DVD: First Look
Picture: Non-Anamorphic Widescreen. It looks generally good printwise, but the non-anamorphic, low end transfer presents some bad technical problems, mainly some compression noise and aliasing.
Sound: 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo, Korean language with English Close-Captioning subtitles or Spanish subs. Here I'm baffled, twice. They give you decent high end surround treatment but no anamorphic image? That is almost like buying a car with a nice paint job and a cruddy engine. For some odd reason, the Eng subs are only close-captioned, so you are forced to read all little audio descriptions and bits where the captioner didn't hear correctly, like when Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini is described as "Brave 'Boom Boom' Mancini."
Conclusion: I'm this films target audience, a boxing fan and foreign film lover, and I found it to be an extremely underwhelming affair, one of those films I'm unlikely to revisit. It's a bio pic that doesn't make any attempts to dig below the surface or really make any strains at delivering much personality about its subject matter. Combine that with a lackluster DVD transfer, and you've got yourself a rental at best. Those interested in Champion as a purchase will want to seek out other region editions that offer more extras and high end system friendly home theater options.