Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

If you’re a boxing fan, there are a certain signature fights that you will never forget.  The Rumble in the Jungle, or Ali v Foreman.  The Thrilla in Manilla or Ali v Frasier III, Hagler v. Hearns, or Hearns v Leonard I.  Tyson v Douglas or Tyson v Holyfield II (the ear biting incident).  Then there was the fight in November of 1982 at Caesars Palace when Lightweight champion Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini fought challenger Duk Koo Kim in a fight that would change the sport of boxing forever.  It was a tough fight and Kim gave Mancini all he could handle but Mancini put him down in 14th round.  Kim would rise, collapse, and never rise again.  Maybe if the fight had been 12 rounds instead of 15 Kim wouldn’t have died.  Boxing matches go no longer than 12 rounds now.  Maybe if Kim, who died of a blood clot to the brain, had a catscan, then possibly the fight may have never taken place.  Now all boxers are subject to pre fight electro cardiograms.  The three knockdown rule became common place as well as standing eight counts for boxers in peril who don’t fall.  Though most of us, at least us boxing aficionados, are familiar with the life of Ray Mancini and the powerful effect Kim’s death had on him, the lot of us knew nothing about the life Kim, other than the fact that he died from injuries sustained in a boxing ring.  Korean director Kyung Taek-Kwak aims to fix this grievous oversight with ‘Champion’, the life story of Kim-Deuk Gu (The proper Korean pronunciation of his name.)

‘Champion’ follows the life of Kim (Oh-Seyung Yu) starting him out as a little boy who jumps on a bus and runs away to the big city.  We see him years later as a young man, homeless, hawking children’s books in the street and selling his blood for cash while getting abused by street thugs.  He sees a flyer on billboard for a boxing gym

and decides to give it a try.  He’s not so good at first but he improves.  He makes friends, he meets a pretty girl whose dad doesn’t like her dating a low life boxer, he battles his inner demons, he wins a championship, he talks to his estranged mom, he becomes arrogant, then he fights Mancini.

The way that I just described ‘Champion’ is pretty close to how the film moves along.  It obviously has a lot to say about this man, but it has only a little bit of time to do it in.  Should they focus on his childhood, or should they focus the love story with the pretty accountant who works upstairs from the gym?  Focus on his boxing career or his relationships with his fellow boxers and his borderline abusive coach?  Focus on his battles with his inner self and eventual arrogance when he becomes the Asian champion or his strained relationship with his mother whom he left as a child.  Instead of choosing a particular story arc the filmmakers tried to squeeze it all in, and since the movie runs only about 100 minutes or so, almost all of those plot points received short treatment. 

The filmmakers showed us some boxing matches, but you never got a sense of how Kim progressed into becoming a championship boxer, much less one who deserved to do battle with the great Boom Boom Mancini.  There was a brief scene intercut near the end of the film of Kim fighting for food while living on the streets as a teenager that seemed out of place and not within the linear flow of the narrative.  There was also a very short scene in which Kim speaks briefly with his estranged mother after a parade given to him back in his hometown.  A very brief scene.  Again, there were probably issues between the two, but the viewer is left to imagine what the problems were since nothing more than perfunctory lip service was paid to the relationship.  The main focus, and it’s debatable if the movie had a main focus, was the love story between Kim and Lee-Kyung Mi (Min-Seo Chae).  At least here the filmmakers allowed us to view the structure of their budding relationship.  They went on dates, they had long walks and talks, they introduced conflict from Lee’s father until eventually they were able to marry.  Min-Seo Chae delivers a standout performance as Kim’s wife who is the only one who can sense the danger of her husband going to Las Vegas.

‘Champion’ isn’t a bad film at all as it entertains and moves quite well.  The boxing scenes are well done and it has good performances all around.  But it is a bad ‘boxing’ movie however.  It just tried to take on too much in too little time and lacked clear direction.  Did it want to make Kim a mythical figure such as Rocky Balboa?  It tries to, but ‘Rocky’ wasn’t a boxing movie. The main focus of ‘Rocky’ was that it was a love story about a boxer (by the way, I was watching the Eagles play the Jaguars last week and CBS pans to a statue of Rocky.  The people of Philadelphia know Rocky’s not a real person, right?).  ‘Raging Bull’ was a boxing movie in which boxing was the centerpiece with the self destruction of Jake LaMotta at  the core.  Champion tries to be that as well.  The end result is that doesn’t do much of anything.  Before the film, I knew nothing about Kim-Deuk Guk, and after watching ‘Champion’ now I feel know next to nothing about him.

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