Story: Mark (Ma Dong-seok) was adopted to America when he was a child. There, he built his career as an arm wrestler, until he had to give it up due to some defamatory statements. Now, he is making ends meet as a bouncer. Suddenly, his old acquaintance Jin-gi (Kwon Yool) turns up again. He wants to be Mark's manager and bring him back to Korea, where he wants him to compete as an arm wrestler. But in fact, Jin-gi specializes in sports betting and already has a deal with a gangster. Mark knows that Jin-gi doesn't want to get him back into the sport out of the goodness of his heart, but he agrees to go with him because this sport is what he really wants to do with his life. Arriving in Korea, his manager gives him his biological mother's address as a thank you, so he can find the women, who gave him away as a child. When he arrives at the address, though, he just finds the single mother Soo-jin (Han Ye-ri) and her two kids Joon-hee (Ok Ye-rin) and Joon-hyeong (Choi Seung-hoon). Apparently, his mother had another daughter, of which he didn't know. He learns that his mother died one year ago. As the two kids instantly take a shine to their big, loveable uncle, Soo-jin lets her half-brother stay at her place. This turns out to be rather practical, as Soo-jin owes money to some gangsters, who show up at her apartment every now and again to collect the money. With the formidable Mark living with her, this soon doesn't pose a problem, anymore. Now, the arm wrestler only has to establish himself in his favorite sport again.
Review: A movie about arm wrestling may have worked in the 80s, but nowadays it is more of a risk to shoot a drama about that kind of niche sport. And most likely, I would have steered clear of this movie if it hadn't been for Ma Dong-seok playing the lead. The former body builder has an intimidating stature, which is in stark contrast to his loveable character. And because he also knows how to act, he managed to get the attention of Korea's filmmakers as a supporting actor in the blink of an eye. By now, he can therefore be seen in blockbuster movies like "Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days" and "Train to Busan". This time, the actor manages once again to give his character that extra special something and wins us over for the story. In addition, "Champion" thankfully does not just come across as a sports movie, but rather proves to be a family movie, which manages to melt your heart without getting too tacky.
It wouldn't come as a surprise if Ma were to be seen in American productions pretty soon, too. He speaks English fluently in this movie and does not have to concentrate on using a foreign language to such a degree, that his acting suffers from the language barrier. And there are actually some parallels between Mark and the actor Ma. The actor was also born and raised in America and amongst other jobs, he worked as a trainer for subsequent MMA-fighters. In addition, he always wanted to make a movie about arm wrestling after he had seen Silvester Stallone's "Over the Top". Arm wrestling is a sport that is actually not that popular and "Champion" does not have any illusions about that either. But it is the sport that is near and dear to Mark and which he pursues because it is what he can do and what he loves doing. It's simple, but also honest and likeable. The real story is about the fact that men with big biceps can also have a big heart and are able to show some weaknesses.
Mark is a man of few words, but what he does say, comes from the bottom of his heart. Ma manages to convey a lot of emotions through his glances, so that despite the common formula that made the actor so popular - tough on the outside, but soft on the inside -, he still manages to do something different to his former roles. What is especially surprising, is that the family gets so much room in the story. Han Ye-ri ("Illang: The Wolf Brigade") plays the half sister and single mother, but it's the kids who develop a direct line to their uncle and make the movie work as a comedy, as well. Here, they not only make fun of the fact that people look down on Mark because he looks like a grizzly bear - even if the term "grizzly teddy bear" would be more fitting -, but the movie also humorously sheds light on the way Korean's who were born in America are treated in Korea. So, there is a little bit of social criticism in there, as well, even if you shouldn't expect anything too deep.
In general, director Kim Yong-wan takes his time with his characters and that pays off. Kwon Yool ("The Admiral: Roaring Currents") as the manager taking advantage of the arm wrestler could have ended up as a caricature, but Mark knows about his agenda and doesn't delude himself. Moreover, the manager does have his very own family story. But this is also the point, where you have to mention that the plot gets somewhat predictable. A twist within the last third of the movie creates a little bit more drama and is the basis for the reconciliation during the finale. However, neither this nor the bad guy pumped full of steroids can be considered as serious obstacles. Everything comes across just too positive to really make us worry. That does not really impair the dramatic aspect, though, as the sports match at the end is captured pleasantly and the director does not try to sell it as something too glamorous.
Therefore, the lack of real surprises may be something to criticize here. What's striking in a good way, though, is the fact that the story about the mother is not exploited too much, even though there are of course some inevitable tears. That's pretty nice, especially as the optimistic nature of the movie remains in stark contrast to typical Korean productions and their tear-jerking endings. The chemistry between Mark and the kids works and makes us overlook the weaknesses concerning the sister and the manager, who could have been fleshed out a little bit more. Therefore, the focus of "Champion" is a family growing together, and this, as well as Ma Dong-seok's performance adds a lot of warmth to the movie. As the flick works on a small scale and does not try to be spectacular, it also manages to outgrow itself. Even if the movie will not necessarily stick with you for long, it is still a well-done comedy drama, which leaves you with a good mood.