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MOVIES: Champion - Review [Fantasia 2018]

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Korean star Ma Dong-Seok, also known as "Don Lee," wowed international audiences with his supporting role in the zombie outbreak film Train to Busan. Now he's back with the arm-wrestling comedy Champion, screening as an official selection at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Champion follows Mark (Dong-Seok), a burly Korean-American whose career as an arm wrestler was sidelined after a competitor framed him for cheating. These days, the soft-spoken Mark works as a bouncer in a Koreatown nightclub, but when his old friend Jin-Ki (Yul Kwon) shows up with a plan to get Mark back into the sport, it doesn't take much convincing for the big guy to pack his bags.

Returning home to Korea for the first time since he was a child, Mark is compelled to locate his birth mother, who gave him up for adoption at an early age. Regrettably, Mark learns that she passed away, but is surprised to discover that he has a younger half-sister named Soo-Jin (Han Ye-ri), a local shopkeeper raising two precocious children. The kids immediately take a liking to Mark, and before long he's accompanying the family on trips to the beach and helping fix things around the house, and occasionally fending off the henchmen of a loan shark to whom Soo-Jin is in debt.

Unfortunately, Jin-Ki is also involved with the same loan shark, putting together a gambling scheme in hopes of turning Mark's comeback into a big payday. But Mark has no interest in sacrificing his dignity for the sake of a few dollars, so when he refuses to throw a match, he's left with a target on his back and a seemingly endless mountain of criminals, steroid-fueled competitors and other obstacles to overcome in order to ascend to the top of the sport.

Champion's biggest strengths are its comedic sensibilities, as director Kim Yong-Wan recognizes the inherent absurdity of arm-wrestling and plays it up for big laughs. It also relies heavily on the performances of the two children (Choi Seung-hoon and Ok Ye-rin), whose wide-eyed innocence and bubbly dialogue delivery make for the perfect complement to Mark's quiet awkwardness. The relationship that forms between Mark and his newfound family provides the emotional center for Champion, and serves to balance the scales against the more ridiculous elements.

An unabashed homage to the 1987 Stallone film Over the Top - which is even referenced by name at one point - Champion also feels influenced by the Rocky series, as a scrappy and charismatic underdog rises to the challenge despite the odds being stacked against him. Stallone has long been idolized by Dong-Seok, who wanted to make an arm-wrestling movie to follow in the footsteps of his hero, and Dong-Seok can take pride in the knowledge that his film is the better of the two (by a pretty wide margin).

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