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FILM REVIEW: The Foul King (2000)

The Foul King - Re-release Review


Director: Kim Jee-woon

Starring: Song Kang-ho, Park Sang-Myeon, Song Young-chang, Shin Goo


Written by: Kim Jee-woon, Kim Dae-woo

Produced by: Mi-yeon Lee, Jung-Wan Oh

Cinematography by: Hong Kyung-pyo

Original Score by: Yeong-gyu Jang


Synopsis:

A wimpy, incompetent bank clerk decides to become a pro wrestler.


The Foul King Film Review

Thoughts:

A beautiful glow of pixels leaks nostalgia, as warmth pours out of an old television set tuned to the scenes of wrestling on a blue canvas. Accompanying titles read “I’m an ordinary office worker” and “There’s another side of me” introducing us to the would-be Foul King. In Kim Jee-woon’s second feature, 'The Foul King' mixes comedy with tragedy, absurd grappling, feats of athleticism and ultra-violence with the mundanity of office politics.



Director of well known classics 'A Tale of Two Sisters', 'A Bittersweet Life', 'The Good, the Bad and the Weird' and 'I Saw the Devil', Kim Jee-woon’s work usually concerns the deep seedy underworld. Often dark, violent and sometimes disgusting, though somehow amongst all the grittiness a lighter side. In a world where you can specialise in horror and stories of revenge at the same time as witty underdog tales. The humour is so very dry, almost purely slapstick. Whilst mainly a comedy 'The Foul King' is incredibly personal and has a lot of heart in its intimacy. 


The film stars frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho and tells the story of the uninspired, melacholic clerk Dae-ho underperforming at work on all accounts. Fed up with his tardiness and efforts to go unnoticed, he angers his boss so much that he finds himself in the grips of not just a metaphorical chokehold but a real one. The manager (Song Young-chang) can no longer take it, he abuses his power and humiliates Dae-ho for being late for a performance evaluation and morning meetings. Dae-ho sees himself as something greater, dreaming of one day escaping the clutches of his bosses headlocks. He seeks bodybuilding guidance from a martial arts friend and wonders if Tae Kwon Do could help with his situation, but is unconvinced with the advice he receives.



On his way home in the midst of strong winds, a dilapidated shack is lit up suddenly by street lights whilst debris and newspapers are blowing everywhere down the street. Dae-ho sees a poster that reads;


“Wrestlers Needed” 

“Wrestling Uniforms - Free of Charge” 

“Combat Techniques - Applicable to Daily Living!”


From feeble daydreamer to ferocious competitor, the film follows suit on the workplace film trend of the late 90s, inspired by slacker culture and malaise of the time seen in cult movies like 'Clerks', 'Office Space' and 'Fight Club'. It also shows how big in particular American wrestling was at the time, full of easter eggs including WWF Magazine cutouts on the gym lockers, a Doink the Clown sticker and even a Summerslam 1998 cameo on TV featuring Stone Cold Steve Austin against The Undertaker.


Song Kang-ho in The Foul King

Dae-ho meets with a former wrestler turned coach at the gym who turns down his requests for training after incessantly questioning how he escapes a headlock. He clearly doesn’t seem to get wrestling. Failing even on his way home from work when he is chased down in the street and beaten up by a group of youths. Returning home, his father too is fed up with his childish ways and poor work ethic. Kang-ho plays the role to perfection with great comedic timing and deadpan facial expressions. He is gullible and clumsy, trying to persuade the wrestlers to train him, he sees the word ’perseverance’ hanging above the ring that helps him with his pursuit. 


It has some beautiful cinematography especially in the dimly lit, dingy gym that really adds to the atmosphere. Captured by Hong Kyung-pyo known for his work on 'Parasite' and 'The Wailing', the print is crisp showcasing the staging well with dynamic lighting and compositing. In particular the framing is excellently crafted as if from a theatre production. In addition the film introduces fantastic chapter cards titled ‘The Headlock of Horror’, ‘Bank Clerk, Now a Wrestling Cheat’ and ‘Requiem in the Ring’ that help with the film's pacing.



One of the film's many highlights is an incredible dream sequence, where Dae-ho envisions himself centre of the ring decked out in full Elvis costume serenading his adoring ringside valet in a Andy Kaufman-esq routine. Confronted by an intimidating figure, he then tussles with the wrestler before unmasking him to reveal his manager in a full suit including vampiric teeth, as if we weren’t to know of his evils. He is once again assaulted before waking from this nightmare, we see an Elvis VHS beside his bed.


After some reluctance the coach needs to find a wrestler willing to cheat and display dirty tactics as a warm up for a famous competitor before they set off on the Death Match circuit in Japan. Instructed by a local promotor with a big sponsor and TV deal lined up, the coach must find a comedy wrestler, a guy who brings loads of character that can put on an entertaining show for the crowd. What follows are endearing training scenes showing offhanded techniques as well as illegal tactics involving ludicrous weapons to much hilarity. The group of misfits and ill fitting comedy wrestlers are in the least bit intimidating, resembling more pantomime characters than statuesque grapplers. A great departure from both the films of the genre and what usually comes to mind from the director. This is unlike many wrestling films, avoiding the bleak and tragic, showcasing the comedy and drama through impressive stunts and choreography making an interesting portrait of the scene in South Korea at the time. 


Song Kang-ho in The Foul King

Kim Jee-woon places us front row centre with the rest of the audience, gasping at every fall and awe-inspiring dropkick. There are some poignant moments and slow-motion action that display feats of agony, often with us cheering on the cartoonish antics of the Foul King. We root for him anyway before he once again must face his boss and the realities of daily life. 


In a lead role for the first time, the loveable Song Kang-ho carries the film through his physical comedy, body language and facials. He is so charming even with the addition of his villainous acts under the mask which makes you wonder just why it took so long for the world to notice him after his amazing performance in Bong Joon Ho's multi Award winning 'Parasite'. There are many light moments that will catch you off guard with its amazing wit, right up until the closing moments. There is some wonderful editing with seamless transitions including some great snapshots between scenes. The score overall plays a huge role in the mood of the film, particularly the piece of music during the introduction that really helps set the tone.



'The Foul King' has a great earnestness to it and doesn’t take itself too seriously making it all the more endearing. As a fan of the genre I couldn’t recommend this film more and goes straight to the top of ambiguous films about wrestling, over 'I Like To Hurt People', 'Barton Fink', 'The Wrestler' and most recently 'The Iron Claw'.



An extremely entertaining piece of work worth checking out, it’s one I can see gaining further cult status and one that I attempted to track down unsuccessfully for years, hiding at the bottom of my Letterboxd watch list. A must see for new fans and those faithful to the duo, overlooked upon original release, the film has a chance to find an audience internationally now released in the UK for the first time. It’s hard to not find just about any moment during the movie where you laugh and realise to yourself “this is so ridiculous, I love it.”


Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


-Gary McIlhagga


'The Foul King' is available for the first time ever on UK Digtial Platforms right now

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