Hot on the heels of “Fighter in the Wind” comes “Rikidozan,” another biopic about a 20th-century Japanese fighting legend who was, in fact, ethnically Korean. Clearly aimed at the Nipponese market (South Korea’s biggest export territory), big-budgeter is a well-tooled, unashamedly conventional slice of bigscreen storytelling whose dramatic flatness is partly lifted by a superb performance from Seol Gyeong-gu as the titular wrestling champ.
With little here to interest Western markets, pic’s true test will be in a slightly re-edited version in Japan later this year. Despite a heavy ad-pub campaign, “Fighter” slugged its way to an underwhelming 1.3 million admissions locally in December.
Though Seol only looks vaguely like the real Rikidozan (1924-63), his perf equals Robert De Niro’s in “Raging Bull” for sheer screen-holding commitment. Strikingly beefed up from his usual slim physique (“Peppermint Candy,” “Public Enemy”), and acting for almost the entire movie in phonetically-taught Japanese, Seol is utterly convincing as the Korean-born expatriate who found fame and fortune in the country of his traditional foe, and kept his true ethnicity a secret until after his death.
Bookended by scenes of Rikidozan’s death from a chance brawl in a nightclub, film charts his professional beginnings as a sumo wrestler in Tokyo near the end of WWII, his constant humiliation by Japanese colleagues, and his final adoption by savvy yakuza boss/sumo sponsor Takeo Kanno (vet Tatsuya Fuji, excellent). After being suspended for unruly behavior, he’s taken under the wing of trainer Harold Sakata (Keiji Moto), who introduces him to the “global sport” of pro wrestling.
After making his name in the U.S. in the early ’50s, Rikidozan returns to Japan a changed man, his horizons broadened and wallet full. With the support of the forward-looking Kanno, Rikidozan introduces pro wrestling to the country, but his glamorous lifestyle and mountainous ego take a heavy psychological toll.
Script makes the most of its broader underpinnings — the Westernization of post-war Japan, and the irony that an ethnic Korean was one of the country’s biggest postwar national heroes. However, there’s a conspicuous lack of dramatic highs and lows to power a two-and-a-quarter-hour movie about an ambitious but basically one-dimensional lug.
Miki Nakatani, the lead in the original “The Ring” and “The Ring 2,” brings some welcome softness to the grunting-male landscape as his devoted wife, Aya, a former geisha. And there’s a touch of real emotion in a late-on scene where Rikidozan visits a Korean friend, who urges him to fess up to his true ethnicity, only to get the reply, “What has Korea ever done for me?” Aside from that, the strongest emotional bond is between Rikidozan and Kanno, with both thesps sparking against each other.
In a career turnaround by director Song Hae-seong — previously known for the modest, much grungier drama, “Failan” — production values are lavish throughout, with spot-on period design, costuming and hairstyles, and a non-backlot look. Blood-and-sweat wrestling scenes are terrific, with the same involving realism (and apparent lack of doubles) as Hilary Swank’s ring seshes in “Million Dollar Baby.”