In his directorial debut, screenwriter Kim Jee-woon collaborated with actors Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-sik in the comedy drama with a touch of horror “The Quiet Family” back in 1998. Reunited with Song as the lead actor, “The Foul King” was his second feature which, besides winning him the Best Director award at the 2001 Milan International Film Festival, it also won the Audience Award at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy.
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This production is a mix of comedy and feel-good sports, featuring Song Kang-ho in his debut as the main character Im Dae-ho, a financial advisor who is constantly late for work and easily pushed around. He is also stuck dealing with his power-hungry boss who lectures and physically intimidates him daily. Im Dae-ho is portrayed as a loser, trapped by his job and the societal expectations placed on him, and still living with a father who constantly belittles him. Despite all of this, he manages to get through his days and even develops a crush on a female coworker, though it ultimately goes nowhere.
One day, he stumbles upon a rundown wrestling gym and decides to improve his skills in hopes of escaping the controlling grasp of his manager. However, the owner is unimpressed by his lack of skill and charm and kicks him out. But when a promoter asks him to train a new villainous character, the owner agrees to let him back in. With his dedication, Im’s side job as a wrestler starts to pay off and he becomes more confident at work. His commitment to wrestling also earns him respect as he works hard to perfect his moves and underhanded tactics, eventually becoming known as the despicable king of wrestling.
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Kim’s sports drama, while not as politically charged as “The Quiet Family,” still delves into the cutthroat world of South Korean corporate culture. The film showcases the common practice of colleagues constantly trying to one-up each other, with brief glimpses of corruption and intense pressure faced by workers. However, Kim doesn’t delve into these themes in great detail, preferring to focus on black comedy and violence, as well as strong character development. Despite the brutality of the wrestling scenes, particularly the climactic fight, they are also entertaining and well-crafted, utilizing techniques like framing and slow motion to heighten impact and tension.
Despite lacking professional training as an actor, Song Kang-ho’s career began in theater and he was primarily given supporting roles, particularly in Kang Je-kyu’s successful spy thriller “Shiri” (1999). However, it was his role in the box office hit “The Foul King” that established him as one of South Korea’s most popular and reliable actors. Remarkably, in addition to his captivating lead performance, he also performed most of the physical stunts required as a wrestler, including bodyslams, drops, and backflips. The film also features a hilariously absurd dream sequence where Song portrays himself as Elvis in the ring, complete with a white jumpsuit, thick sideburns, and chest hair. His portrayal of a weak and flabby character who transforms into a confident and feared masked wrestler is both impressive and spot-on.
The secondary actors are equally remarkable and unforgettable in their portrayals of a lovable and diverse group of characters. Jung Woong-in portrays the courageous yet sorrowful Choi Du-sik, Im’s coworker who stands up for himself, while Song Young-chang is just as cruel as their controlling brunch manager. The two resident wrestlers, who often provide humor in the gym, are equally amusing and endearing. Jang Jin-young is also lovable as Min Young, the daughter of the gym owner and a potential love interest for Im. However, their relationship never materializes.
After its debut, “The Foul King” received great acclaim for its exploration of self-discovery, propelling both Kim and Song to new heights in their careers. Along with Song’s impressive physical performance, the film is highly enjoyable and uplifting. Most importantly, the director deserves credit for not using wrestling as a dramatic plot point or making the main character, Im Dae-ho, a cliché masked wrestler.