THE FOUL KING Review
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 anti-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.