Review: In CHAMPION, Don Lee Reigns Supreme

That Warner Bros. has been branching out into Korean film productions lends a certain continued appeal for folks interested in seeing foreign imports on the big screen. Indeed, smaller banners have done the same but it's especially nice when a major Hollywood label expands itself to another market and backs what would normally be a niche film without a huge audience overseas. It's especially why it's so pleasing to see a company like Well Go USA become so prolific in this effort as recent years have shown efforts to achieve the same both coming and going.

Nowadays, fans and followers of Asian movies can take pride in such endeavors, especially when films likeiy Champion enter the fray spotlighting an actor as fruitious as Korean film star Don Lee, locally known as Ma Dong-Seok. Some of his credits include Kundo (2014), The Chronicles Of Evil (2015) and Kim Yong-Hwa's two-part fantasy epic, Along With The Gods (2018), while many festival regulars and horror fans will recognize him for his powerhouse performance in the 2016 hit movie, Train To Busan, which is up for a remake to be produced by Gaumont. The latter is one of at least two for which the actor has been decorated for his craft, and so there's no diminishing or questioning the sizable support he's earned from some fans.

In essence, he's pretty much South Korea's contemporary answer to that of the eighties and nineties muscular action hero with an appreciation and fanbase that comes pretty momentous with the proliferation of Hollywood sensation, Dwayne Johnson. In my own view, it's arguably justifiable at this point in the wake of his latest film release, Champion, directed by Kim Yong-Wan and serving as a continual nod from the film's star to that of 80s rugged leading man status by way of Menahem Golan's 1987 Sylvester Stallone headliner, Over The Top.

The overall treatment is a delightful echo of the kind of bygone cinema that baby boomers and much older millenials can immediately appreciate with Lee in the role of Mark, a former arm-wrestling champion whose sabotaged career has rendered him struggling in Los Angeles. The film wastes no time in putting Mark's terse, tough and straightforward personality on full display, putting on a rousing entry that pulls no punches with our protagonist front and center.

Mark's friendship is also established with an underdog hustler named Jin-Ki, played by winning South Korean TV and film actor Kwon Yul, just minutes after the film starts and onward proceeding the film's opening nightclub fracas. The pace is set as our two leads, both with their own agendas, set off to South Korea to chase prospects for Mark's redemption in competitive arm-wrestling when Jin-Ki decides to get in bed with Yang, a local crimeboss, in an effort toward gaining sponsorship and investment.

Actress Han Ye-Ri plays Soo-Jin, a beleagured shop owner whose business resides in Yang's building. It's a circumstance that eventually culminates after passing moments of seeing each other in awkward distance before she reciprocates, aiding him and Jin-Ki following a scuffle near her shop where Yang manhandles her. The two join Soo-Jin on their ride home where she lives with son Joon-Hyung and daughter Joon-Hee - played respectively by Choi Seung-Hoon and Ok Ye-Rin.

Champion doesn't venture much into the history of Mark's often troubled friendship with Jin-Ki. Apart from what we learn going forward, what matters is that their delivery together is a viable on-screen pairing with Jin-Ki exhibiting all the usual tropes of a hapless, ambitious schemer, imbued with the gift of gab in all its residual curses whilst engaging with Yang, played by actor Yang Hyun-Min.

Mark's rugged visage is consistently on full display, coupled with an analog comprehension of things that embodies his traditional, old school worldview in all its narrowness and complexities. His growing levity with Soo-Jin and her children further pave the way for more development as the narrative escalates into its pivotal revelations regarding Mark's vague's past, uncovered in a stories montage of very poignant scenes going into the third act.

Not to be outdone by the ensuing drama, Champion is embroiled in a much more comedic purpose from time to time. Energy sprouts between many of these moments, namely when Jin-Ki rushes Mark away from dinner or when Mark has second thoughts about sitting in a vibration massage chair. Mark's brooding mass easily obscures Soo-Jin from harm's way under some of the most hyperbolic of terms - save for when it comes time to actually throw a punch and when that happens, Mark is a force to be reckoned with; He's the near-perfect embodiment of that long famed joke about what one calls a 5000-pound gorilla, and it's in these poetic moments where the usual suspects eventually learn the answer to that jab the hard way.

Cinematography aficionados might take a liking to the use of the film's few "arm-cam" moments in the third act next to the film's remaining arm-wrestling sequences. Moreover, when it comes to the players in the room, Mark isn't entirely left to the vultures as many of the athletes he reunites and makes acquaintance with aren't all enemies looking to square off with one another. Festively, that mantle gets held by actor Lee Kyoo-Ho in the role of Punch, Yang's roid-raging ace-in-the-hole with a purely unorthodox and resolute penchant for injuring his opponents on the table.

Champion is a warm welcome for the forgotten action movie fan who grew up with the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger in their purview. It helps that actor Lee's own yesteryear inspiration provides just the kind of tone and gravitas one aspires to see in a movie that hits as hard and powerful in its dramatic effect as any scene out of Rocky. The essence bodes equally strong to the benefit of moviegoers who've been vociferous in vying for better Asian representation in Western entertainment - here with respect to Well Go USA - and it's a milestone not too alien for Lee given that he is Korean-American and can speak fluent English.

Don Lee, known overseas as Ma Dong-Seok whose 2017 film, Kang Yoon-Sung's The Outlaws measured as the third-highest domestic release late last year, has had his work cut out for him over the years. My first exposure to him was in Kundo and he certainly left an even greater impression in Train To Busan, while sharing a cameo appearance in one other Korean action favorite, Veteran from director Ryoo Seung-Wan.

I've been told a time or two by at least one filmmaker friend who has opined on how to act, suggesting that one way to being a good actor is to treat it as the sum of your experiences. If that's the case, Lee's riveting performance in Champion offers up an illustrious recital to be remembered the next time one decides to ask for an example of who best represents an actor with the talent, work ethic and ability to gravitate movie fans: In Champion, you're looking at him.

Champion opens at the AMC Empire 25 in New York City this Friday. Visit for more details


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