Story By: James Webb
There’s something remarkably old-school about Champion that is both a strength and a weakness. Increasingly, modern comedy movies have become surreal, self-referential or meta; or are just increasing unrealistic farces that continuously escalate. That’s fine of course, but it makes the mostly down-to-earth comedy of Champion all the more charming.
Champion follows Ma Dong-seok (Train to Busan) as Mark, a Korean immigrant in LA working as a bouncer. Thanks to his obnoxious friend Jin-gi, played by Kwon Yeul, he ends up losing his job at the bar. Jin-gi runs off to Korea and Mark works as a security guard, before being drawn back to Korea. Jin-gi plans to use Mark’s impressive strength to win arm wrestling contests in an attempt to get rich quick. Jin-gi’s greed gets them involved in underground arm wrestling competitions run by gangsters. In the meantime, when Mark attempts to find his mother, he discovers that he’s actually got a younger sister, Su-Jin (played by Han Yae-ri), who’s raising two kids on her own. Mark suddenly finds he’s got family and slowly climbs the ranks in an attempt to become the arm wrestling champ of Korea.
A majority of the humor comes from Mark’s size, as characters who act tough around Su-jin or Jin-gi suddenly become friendly when Mark shows up. Or jokes about his massive appetite and incredible strength. Occasionally, there’s a fish-out-of-water joke since he’s been in America for so long. Most of the scenes were funny or cute, especially involving Mark’s niece and nephew. But the whole movie is also pretty predictable. If you’ve seen a sport comedy, or a family comedy, you know a lot of the story beats. Training montage? Check! Intimidating sports rival with questionable morals? Check! Friendly Rival? Check! Second act conflict to add some stakes to the final contest? Of course. But Ma Dong-seok’s Mark is charming and Su-jin’s family is super cute. Even if the plot is predictable, the emotional beats hit in the right places as there were definitely some tears in the theater.
One additional point of praise is the casting. Ma Dong-seok actually lived in the U.S., so whenever he speaks English he sounds completely believable. Often, when a movie contains a character who’s supposed to be “foreign” they often cast someone who is decidedly not, the results can really damage the immersion. For example, Shin Godzilla’s Kayoko Anne Patterson, who was played by Satomi Ishihara, is supposed to be a “Special Envoy for the President of the USA” yet her English is laughably bad. It’s simply poor casting. This kind of phenomenon isn’t limited to Asian films, often Hollywood mixes up Asian actor to similarly distracting results and then relies on the audience’s lack of familiarity with the language to get away with it. Even in Champion, the head gangster has a couple of English lines that were completely incomprehensible, which makes one wonder why give him English lines at all, especially since he never actually talks to Mark.
Regardless, Champion is a solid, family, sports comedy. While predictable, Champion’s novel elements and Ma Dong-seok’s charm definitely makes it worth a view, even if it’s unlikely to become a classic.
Review courtesy of K-Movie Love. To see more film reviews, go to kmovielove.com.