I seriously dread ever having to make a top ten thursday that focuses specifically on Korean films, although it has been quite awhile since I have even composed a list of such a manner so perhaps my fear is even more centered in the concern that I will never actually be satisfied with any list upon viewing other items that fall into its categories, even with the most absurd of categories. Regardless, I am getting back into the pace of things with Korean cinema, as I know my planned Western month and impending Bond project will invariably block time from movies that I really want to see, as opposed to ones I should be watching, or am watching happily in the name of research. As such, I wanted to dig into the corners of Korean Cinema and find some items that I had desperately wanted to view since first being informed of their existence and while Peppermint Candy seems to be the largest gap in my Korean film viewing to date, The Foul King was another that I longed to see upon hearing about its absolutely zany plot and action oriented narrative. My trip through the Korean filmic landscape over the past year and some change at this point has afforded me a ton of different viewing experiences, some of which, for obvious reasons, exist decidedly within the horror genre, while others of equal enjoyment found themselves entrenched within the romantic comedy realm. However, The Foul King seems to be in a world of Korean filmmaking all its own, drawing heavy influence from the works of Seijun Suzuki, while much to my surprise using some of the filmic stylings that one can only hope helped guide Aronofsky in his methodology as it pertains to my personal favorite of his The Wrestler. Of course, considering that it is a relatively recent Korean film, The Foul King is anything but straightforward in its narrative. Sure it is a linear film in many aspects, but it finds itself so informed by the impossible and the cinematically evasive as to be a constantly evolving narrative whose fixations on the crumblings of masculinity and the desire for destruction as a means of escapism. The Foul King is a film that may well have suffered from a loss on the cutting room floor, but what viewers are given in the way of social commentary is good, if not absolutely perfect.
The Foul King focuses primarily on Dae-ho (Kang-ho Song) a out-of-his-luck bank clerk, whose diminutive relationship with his boss becomes a point of contempt and disdain for all that is wrong in his life, both financially and emotionally. When his boss oversteps his boundaries and places the young worker in a headlock, Dae-ho takes it upon himself to seek out an alternative method to fight back against the authoritative boss. When he is turned down by a friend who does tae-kwon-do, Dae-ho finds an add for professional wrestling and realizes that such and endeavor will provide him the skills necessary to fight off his boss. However, the trainer and head of the gym refuses to aid Dae-ho, particularly after he expresses an interest in the classic wrestler known as The Foul King who would rely on elaborate cheating method to assure victory. Yet Dae-ho is incredibly persistent and when the gym head is forced by mafia leaders to heighten the action of his matches he agrees to take on the aspiring wrester. During his training Dae-ho comes to realize how truly exhausting and challenging wrestling can be, even when it is fake, learning to choreograph elaborate fights, along with the methods necessary to "cheat" without getting caught. After some bumpy roads Dae-ho finds a bit of success in the ring and eventually builds up enough of a reputation to be scheduled to fight against renowned fighter Yubiho (Su-ro Kim). Meanwhile, Dae-ho is still finding trouble with attaining respect at work, as well as at home where his father criticizes him for being a failure, as such, Dae-ho pours everything into this fight, even though he is expected to throw the fight in the name of entertainment. After a long drawn out fight with Yubiho, one that delves into a real brawl, Yubiho does indeed defeat Dae-ho, but not before the young wrestler has earned a new degree of self-respect and willingness to strive for more than mediocrity in his daily life, even if he still finds it hard to be fully successful in every single endeavor.
The Foul King is such a straight forward "turning a new leaf" narrative. Dea-ho is a simple character with simple desires and the film does not at any point attempt to layer a ton of metaphor onto this quest. However, that is not to say that The Foul King is not something short o brilliant. In fact, I was completely enamored with the film from its excellent and highly artistic opening moments and found Dae-ho to be an absolutely intriguing character. What the film does is takes something such as the concerns, particularly in a masculine context, for workplace advancement and parallels them nicely with the issues of competition and phallic power in professional wrestling. Dae-ho would be quite content to simply move through his unproductive life, however, when he is attacked inexplicably by his boss in the bathroom it becomes a question of his own power and authority as a male and he seeks a physical venue to challenge to oppressive force. The latent homoeroticism of things like wrestling and contact sports, allow for the attack by Dae-ho's boss to take on a new form, and other suggestions of homosexuality as being present in an unwarranted context play into this narrative nicely. In fact, I found myself laughing each time a wrestler was shown training at the gym, inevitably they would be show working with a punching bag that was blatantly intended to be phallic, it would be near impossible to call it anything else. Of course, the film does not suggest that homosexuality is bad by any means, it only notes that the issue of sexual advances and exploitations based on economic means is problematic and to work against this would be the ideal. It is also a narrative that draws a clear line between being a person with low work ethic and a person who blatantly cheats. While neither are ideals in any sense, it is clear that Dae-ho's cheating in the ring is for show, where as Yubiho's use of steroids and violent temperament are more detrimental to the safety of his opponents and the sanctity of the sport, a fine parallel with his boss whose constant attacks are borderline assault, as opposed to well meaning reprimands for the young banker's immature behavior.
Key Scene: It is a rare feat to have the opening shots of a movie suck me in immediately, but this is the case with The Foul King.
This film is, unfortunately, hard to come by on DVD, but is available on Netflix. However, there appears to be about one copy in circulation so it might be awhile before you get your hands on a copy.