A downtrodden bank clerk moonlights as a rule-breaking wrestler in “The Foul King,” a potentially knockabout local comedy that’s given surprising substance by measured direction and performances. The sophomore writing-directing effort by Kim Jee-woon lacks the broad-based appeal that made his 1998 black comedy “The Quiet Family” such a hit on the fest circuit last year, but the pic deserves exposure at less arty events. Ethnic webs could enter the buying ring.
Locally, the movie was the first big hit of the year, racking up some 820,000 admissions in Seoul alone during three months. This was almost double the amount scored by “American Beauty,” its main foreign contender during February through April.
Salaryman Im Dae-ho (Song Kang-ho) is chided by his father at home, bullied by his boss at work and secretly fancies one of his female colleagues. A fan of wrestling, and of the great so-called “foul kings,” he gets the idea of taking up the sport himself, especially after his boss headlocks him in the men’s room one day.
Reluctantly taken on by a bibulous veteran coach (Jang Hang-seon), he submits to training by the coach’s daughter, Min-yeong (Jang Jin-yeong), and slowly develops some self-confidence. After winning his first fight by accident, he begins training seriously for a tag match against champ Yubiho (Kim Su-ro), who’s looking for a patsy to boost his career in Japan.
Film is actually about daring to rebel against the status quo, and finding individual dignity in a deferential society — reasons why, like the anarchic, more youth-oriented comedy “Attack the Gas Station!,” it was so embraced by Korean auds. But there’s also plenty here for Western viewers: Helmer Kim doesn’t go overboard on the physical shtick (mostly confined to the spectacular, slightly exaggerated fights in the ring) and the characters are all well drawn, with direction mostly eschewing flashy effects. Lensing by Hong Kyeong-pyo is often beautifully lit in the quieter moments in the gym.
Song, who played the brother in “Quiet Family,” is good in the lead, playing him not as a pure dweeb but more as a dreamer who conceals considerable pent-up aggression. (Song’s technique and looks often recall those of Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chiau, for whom the pic would be a good remake vehicle.) Jang Jin-yeong makes an impression as the lightly romantic, not-so-fragile daughter, and Jang Hang-seon is solid as her washed-up, grumpy father.
Pic is smooth on the technical front, with an aggressive rock score by group Uh-Uh-Boo occasionally powering montages, and the digital soundtrack is full of small, heightened effects.