Film Review: Fists of Legend

High-school friends meet years later on a televised boxing competition. Ambitious drama offers a penetrating look at Korean society.

Don't be fooled by the title. Fists of Legend may sound like a kung fu movie, but it's actually a wide-ranging drama that takes a satirical eye to Korean society over the past three decades. Based on an online cartoon series, the film occasionally slips into soap opera. But a talented cast and assured directed by Kang Woo-suk help make this far more entertaining, and commercial, than the title suggests.

The story revolves around "Legendary Fist," a TV show that pits middle-aged contestants against each other in mixed martial-arts bouts. Like reality shows here, sad stories get high ratings, so producer Hong Kyui-min (a brittle Lee Yo-won) seeks out men well past their prime, losers so desperate they don't mind being mocked and beaten up on camera.

Widower Lim Deok-kyu (Hwang Jung-min) barely keeps his noodle shop afloat and has a strained relationship with his young daughter Soo-bin (Ji Woo). He competes on "Legendary Fist" mostly to impress her, but after winning a few matches starts to enjoy his minor celebrity.

Lim had hopes of competing on Korea's Olympic boxing team in 1988, and as the film flashes back to his high-school days we meet three other characters whose lives will connect on "Legendary Fist." Ashamed of his background, the hotheaded Shin Jae-suk (Yoon Jea-moon) found release in the past in gang violence. Now he is a low-level gangster with few prospects. The wealthy Son Jin-ho (Jung Woong-in) was a spoiled coward in high school. As head of his family's company, he still likes abusing his former friend and current employee, Lee Sang-hoon (Yu Jun-sang).

Fists of Legend switches back and forth from past to present, each shift opening up new aspects of the characters and their experiences. Lim sees himself as easygoing and unconcerned, for example, but at a high-school reunion his classmates still resent what they see as his arrogance. The movie is especially good at showing how dreams can shrivel in the demands of day-to-day life.

The four leads allow director Kang Woo-suk to explore a full spectrum of Korean life, from repressed white-collar workers to petty crooks, from prep-school kids to bar hostesses. Kang has fun with the TV setting, showing how the media manipulates gullible consumers, and has smart things to say about how peer pressure drives his characters.

The film's takes on social media, bullying and binge drinking feel more up-to-date than Hollywood features, but this is still a resolutely middle-of-the-road project. Kang takes few chances when it comes to acting, plotting or visual style. Still, it's easy to see why his films, like the Public Enemy series, are so popular. The director has a light touch, but isn't afraid to criticize his characters, and by extension Korea itself.

One mark of Kang's skill is that much of what goes on in his movie would work just as well in other countries and languages. Polished and engaging, Fists of Legend deserves a look, even if its story ultimately disappoints.