The Foul King screens Tuesday, March 1st, as part of BAM Rose Cinema's Kim Jee-woon retrospect- Severely Damaged: The Cinema of Kim Jee-woon.
This ain't no Wallace Beery wrestling picture, that's for sure.
1998 saw the release of Kim Jee-woon's darkly comic debut, The Quiet Family
. Two years later, he came flying off the top turnbuckle with The Foul King
a crowd pleasing romp in a luchador mask and a singlet . According to
Grady Hendrix, co-founder extraordinaire of the New York Asian Film
Festival, this is the film that broke the director outside of his native
Korea. Hendrix knows a thing or twelve about Asian cinema, so I tend to
trust him when it comes to these type of things. I personally didn't
became aware of Jee-woon until I saw his brain-twisting horror crossover A Tale of Two Sisters
, which later resurfaced as an abysmal remake called The Uninvited
. Although not as flashy as his later work, The Foul King
is interesting in that it represents a director about to hit his creative stride.
The Foul King
is the story of Dae-Ho, a perpetual man-child
cum bank clerk who suffers daily indignities at the hands of his
alpha-male boss. In a bid to toughen himself up, Dae-Ho enlists the help
of a local wrestling coach, who transforms him into the dreaded Foul
King. This athletic alter ego provides Dae-ho with the confidence he
lacks in everyday life, allowing him to confront young street toughs and
ask pretty ladies out with impunity. Eventually it even allows him to
confront his abusive boss, in a hilarious climactic post-climax
Dae-Ho is played with effortless likeability by the (then) future
star, Song Kang-ho, in his first leading role. He would go on to star in
such Korean blockbusters as Joint Security Area
and The Host
, as well as a number of Jee-woon's future films. If The Foul King
is the film that broke Kim Jee-woon internationally, it is also the film
that broke Song Kang-ho, and the two men have each other to thank for
their mutual success.
For all the accolades it has received, and taking into account the considerable talents of those involved, I found The Foul King
a bit lacking in the script department. I'm well aware of the fact that
countries outside of the US don't adhere as strictly to a rigid
narrative structure, but in a film like this- with it's high concept,
numerous conflicts and even a bona fide antagonist- I feel the script
could have been tighter. However that doesn't prevent the viewer from
enjoying Kang-ho's nimble comic performance. It is a physically
demanding role, and I could swear it was Kang-ho taking most of the
abuse inside the ring.
On the production side, ...King
boasts some very nice
choreography, especially in the climactic tag-team match. It is less WWE
RAW and more balletic old school professional wrestling. There is a
nostalgia here that translates well to a western audience, and could
account for much of the film's international popularity. As he already
proved with The Quiet Family
, Jee-woon is adept at appealing to moviegoers worldwide.
Those only familiar with the director's later work shouldn't be
surprised by Jee-woon's comedic roots. Humoristic flourishes continue to
permeate his recent films, even with their bleak subject matter. The
further he strays from more straightforward comedy, the more apparent
his skill with it becomes. Jee-woon is like a chameleon when it comes to
genre, weaving together seemingly disparate elements into a fluid whole.
Although not the full-on genre exercise A Tale of Two Sisters
or The Good, The Bad and The Weird
are, and despite a loose script, The Foul King
still manages to function on multiple stylistic and dramatic levels.
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