With Gangnam Style destroying the charts the world over, we will soon see a second wave of the Korean invasion taking place. Three of South Koreas most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors have their English language debuts set for next year. Kim Jee Woon (THE LAST STAND), Park Chan Wook (STOKER), and Bong Joon Ho (SNOWPIERCER) have already proved themselves in their homeland, and here at THN we are taking a look back over their past efforts. Starting with the films of Kim Jee Woon, join us each week over the course of the next few months as we explore The Land Of The Morning Calm.
Director: Kim Jee Woon
Cast: Song Kang Ho, Jang Jin Young, Park Sang Myeon, Kim Soo Ro, Jang Hang Seon, Jung Woong In, Song Young Chang,
Plot: An incompetent bank clerk gets involved in the world of professional wrestling.
After the success of Kim’s debut THE QUIET FAMILY, he found himself writing and directing this little sports comedy which is probably his least known effort. Quite why it is yet to receive the coverage of his earlier and later efforts is quite the mystery. It may be because it came at a time when slapstick and dark comedy dramas were being pushed aside in the west, in favour of teen sex comedies.
THE FOUL KING is a look at the tediousness of everyday life, which is an even bigger issue in South Korea where working hours can make our jobs seem part-time. This film was also released four years before the government tried cutting down on working hours by introducing a mandatory 40 hour working week for companies with a certain amount of employees. Even now, with contracts in place, many employees are expected to work way beyond their agreed hours. THE FOUL KING gives us one man who decides to break free and stand out from the working masses. That man is Im Dae Ho (Song Kang Ho) a mild-mannered bank clerk who arrives late for work every day.
The opening shot is a close-up on a television screen screening wrestling. Even for those of you with no connection to the sport, it’s an opening that may confuse you into thinking you love the sport, due to the soft and gentle piano solo that plays over the images. This moment is also important as, despite the violence we see on screen, it has a calming effect. It feels therapeutic and relaxing. This is in stark contrast with the next scene of suited workers barging their way on to a subway train. It’s played for laughs, but there is also a very sad truth to it.
One of the people crushed into the subway train is Im Dae Ho, and once he gets to work things only get worse. His boss is such a tool the best way to describe him is to say if this film was American, Kevin Spacey would play the role. Everything about him oozes a sense of misjudged self-importance. After Dae Ho is placed in a headlock by his boss, it becomes apparent that the scripted beatings of wrestling are nothing compared to the jungle that is the working world. Song Kang Ho is perfect in the role of Im Dae Ho. He has the slapstick loser part down well, but as he makes his transformation throughout the film he is utterly convincing. Not an easy task considering he doesn’t appear to gain muscle for his role as a wrestler.
Walking home one night, Dae Ho stumbles across a gym looking for competitors to try their hand at wrestling. The gym is run by an old wrestling hero of Dae Ho’s, but Dae Ho is soon sent packing because he is simply looking for a quick way to get out of a headlock, instead of focusing on the big picture. Dae Ho doesn’t just need a way of escaping a headlock, he needs a way to escape the mundane life he has found himself trapped in. He walks home and tries to stop a gang of youths from attacking a young lad, they soon turn on Dae Ho which leads to a comical chase around the streets of Seoul. This is also the point where Kim shows himself to have a unique eye for visual cartoon humour in a live action film. As one of the attackers runs to kick his victim, he pauses in the exact pose of a football player painted on the wall behind him. There’s also a long shot of a jogger on a bridge who soon stops and bolts in the opposite direction as he sees Dae Ho and his pursuers chase running along like a chase scene from SCOOBY DOO.
That night Dae Ho has a dream that he is a professional wrestler dressed as Elvis. He commences in battle against a masked individual. Kim captures the frenetic action in the ring without resorting to frenetic camera work. Every move is well choreographed and it looks as though Song Kang Ho is right there doing it all himself. The next day Dae Ho returns to the gym where he meets Min Young, the daughter of the owner. Min Young is played wonderfully by Jang Jin Young, an actress who tragically died of stomach cancer in 2009 at the age of 35. Here, she shows why she was one of Korea’s best loved actresses, in a role that could have devolved into a corny romantic subplot. Luckily, Kim has more sense than that and although he builds a respectable friendship between the two, romance is left out of the picture. I think that’s an important part as to why this film works so well. All the emphasis is on Dae Ho’s struggle against his life, and it has to be a personal struggle.
Dae Ho is soon invited to wrestle, but is told he will be a foul king. That’s a wrestler that uses all of the cheat techniques under the sun. Dae Ho shows his ignorance when it actually comes to wrestling by sniffing cups (the kind meant for your downstairs, not the drinking kind) and generally being a buffoon. Luckily, Min Young puts him through his paces and shows him exactly how tough this is going to be. The film always keeps its tone as a dark comedy/drama rather than becoming an inspirational sports film. It does this by avoiding overused techniques such as the montage. Now, we all love a good montage, but here each of the training techniques is set up and given its due. Without a forced romance, or any other subplot, we are completely focused on the character of Im Dae Ho and his rise to be a professional wrestler.
As the film enters the final battle Kim continues to avoid sentimental pap, probably because Dae Ho has already won. He has found something that gives his life excitement and meaning. Music is absent from the majority of the final fight and when it does kick in it is what can only be described as the Korean Tom Waits who belts out a slow and sombre tune. Kim also demonstrates his handle on violence. The film is mostly filled with fake wrestling violence, so when a cheek is split open and squirts blood, it is a shocking wake-up despite being incredibly tame when you look at Kim’s later work such as I SAW THE DEVIL. It’s such a wonderfully shot final match, where we see all the action and the likes of slow-motion are used sparingly.
THE FOUL KING mixes social commentary, comedy, drama, and sporting action in equal amounts. It knows exactly the story it wants to tell and has no concerns about hitting a wider audience. Something Kim would go on to do a lot of is subvert familiar Hollywood genres, and this is probably where it all began.
What To Take To THE LAST STAND? Hopefully Kim will know when to use the more graphic violence, and also when to hit the comical notes. With an aging star like Schwarzenegger, it would be the perfect time to subvert the action genre in its entirety by using unexpected editing and musical choices.
THE LAST STAND is released on 18th January 2013 in the US and 25th January 2013 in the UK. It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander, Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, and Genesis Rodriguez.
Join us next week for a look at another Kim Jee Woon classic. You can find all the articles in the series here.