Film Review: Champion

An arm-wrestling competition gives an orphan the chance to find a family in a clever Korean drama.
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Arm wrestling is the least interesting part of Champion, a Korean movie that uses the sport as a backdrop for a story about a broken family. Another winning performance by Don Lee anchors a light, easygoing comedy that hits all the expected buttons without wearing out its welcome.

Lee, also known as Ma Dong-seok, plays Mark, an adopted Korean child raised in the U.S. Once a competitive arm wrestler, Mark is working as a bouncer in a Los Angeles nightclub when he is approached by Jin-ki (Kwon Yul), an aspiring promoter. He persuades Mark to return to arm wrestling in South Korea.

Once home, Mark cautiously seeks out his biological mother, still wounded about having been "discarded" by her years earlier. Instead he finds single mom Soo-jin (Han Ye-ri), who's struggling to raise two adorable kids and run a discount designer shop.

Trying to build Mark's profile, Jin-ki turns to gangster Yoo Chang-su (Yang Hyun-min), who in turn sells part of the wrestler's contract to even shadier moneymen. They all want to control which matches Mark wins or loses.

Since Soo-jin is also in debt to Yoo, Mark moves in with her family, cleaning up their chaotic home and trying to discipline the kids while scaring off Yoo's goons. Then he has to decide whether to compete for real in a championship in Busan, or let gangsters control his fate.

Champion owes a lot to Over the Top, an excruciating Sylvester Stallone vehicle from 1987. (Mark even tells a reporter how the movie inspired him.) Don Lee bears a slight resemblance to Stallone, and plays a similarly bumbling character, not too articulate but essentially decent.

But director Kim Yong-wan brings a gentle tone to Champion, one that's light years away from Stallone's bluster and artificial sentiment. Mark has mixed feelings about the people around him, he's not too happy about being in Korea, and he's fully aware how rigged his sport is. But he's still plugging away, trying to do what's right.

And in an unassuming way he's quite funny. He's a terrible cook for the kids, has sharp comebacks when people call him ugly (and worse), and has a ridiculous appetite for bizarre foods. Mark is so likeable in part because Don Lee is a very talented actor who never lets on how hard he's working. (He also gets to take out a half-dozen thugs in a brief scene that proves he should be in action movies here.)

It turns out arm wrestling has close to zero visual or narrative appeal. Each match has the same grunts, grimaces and close-ups of bulging biceps. In fact, they're so boring Kim resorts to flashbacks during all the flexing to spice them up. But the heart of Champion—learning to trust, finding a way to forge bonds, accepting the faults in those you love—lifts this above a routine sports movie.

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