In the Spotlight this Week: Kim Jee-won's "The Foul King"...
Falling squarely within South Korea's 'New Wave', Kim Jee-won's sophomore feature "The Foul King" (2000) was a welcomed spur that helped revitalise South Korea's film industry. The film was not only a box office hit (being the fourth highest-grossing film of its year) but a regional one as well that tailed the likes of "Missions Impossible 2", "Gladiator", and the year's number one film: "JSA - Joint Security Area". It was also the film when Song Kang-ho, according to Korean film journalist and critic Darcy Paquet, "first displayed the emotional depth that would characterise his later roles".
Lim Dae-ho (Song Kang-ho) is a fumbling accounts manager at a small bank; an uninspired soul who arrives late, performs poorly, and who is romantically inert. He lives with his aging father in a small apartment and, in general, lacks the confidence and power of a modern man with a mission. His masculinity is constantly undermined throughout the film, a lack that is typified in a bathroom scene that sees his boss forcefully hold him in a headlock while he mocks his lack of potency and power. After this traumatic incident, Dae-ho approaches a small wrestling gym in the hopes that he'll be able to escape any future headlocks or humiliations. The head of this dojo, a retired wrestling superstar himself, eventually agrees to train the childish chump after being coaxed into producing a cheating character for an upcoming bout with a Japanese crowd pleaser. And so the "Foul King" is born.
It's not only Dae-ho's boss who subverts his potential power, throughout "The Foul King" we see this humiliation extends to all of Dae-ho's relationships as well. His farther treats him like a teenager and scolds him constantly for being a childish, he has trouble/fails to nurture an important male friendship at work, and even a gang of deviant teenagers are too much for this seemingly dismembered dullard. He is the modern Korean man in crisis; a man stuck in adolescence who so desperately wants to wrestle his way out of impotency and become a man of intent and inner confidence.
"The Foul King" is a sentimental drama at heart but whose beats are largely comical. While the subject matter and social commentary are both crisp and on point, what Kim's film does extremely well is balance the seriousness of its social subtext with genuine empathy; all of which is presented within a water-tight narrative flecked with funnies. From Dae-ho's fantasizes about being in the ring (dressed as the 'King' himself-Elvis) against a demonically clad opponent, to his consistently clumsiness and boyish buffoonery, our hero persistently tickles our funny bone while depicting real desires glamorously realized.
Perhaps the most daring decision made about Dae-ho is that he's ultimately a man of conviction, rather than transformation. This hero's journey is fraught with obstacles and naysayers, and while this unlikely hero does indeed grow, the result is more a rekindling of an inner fire than a manly mutation. He's willing to wear the mask of masculinity and learn to play the game, but ultimately emerges from this masquerade with a mature sense of confidence. This is beautifully realized in the film's final match where-spoiler-Dae-ho's Japanese opponent rips off his mask to reveal the meek man behind it. Exposed and on show, Dae-ho is forced to find the might to stand in the ring not under the guise and comfort of anonymity, and without any guarantees of success he furiously fights on.
"The Foul King" was an important and timely film in modern Korean cinema that helped usher in a new era of talent and socially-conscious creativity. Its aims are modest, its commentary true, and comes enriched with Kim's passion for thoughtful films that are entertaining and accessible.
Available on Blu-ray fom YESASIA
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