Yu Oh-seong is Kim Deuk-gu in this poignant and tragic tale of this young boxer’s rise from poverty to contender for the World Lightweight Championship.
The name Kim Deuk-gu only seems known to sports historians recognised as synonymous with both a dark day for boxing and the turning point that changed the sport forever. Writer/director Kwak Kyung-Taek’s biopic shines a light on Kim’s life as a boxer and his tragic death that shook the boxing world to its core.
Known in South Korea for his work in television and comedic films Yu Oh-seong takes on the role of Kim Deuk-gu, working once again with Kwak Kyung-Taek (the two having previously worked on 2001’s “Friend”). Making her debut opposite Yu is Chae Min-seo as Kim’s fiancé Lee Kyeong-mi.
Yun Seong-won is boxing coach Kim Hyeon-ji who runs his gym Dong-Ah with an iron fist, big on strict discipline along with manners and respect. Matt Phillips plays World Lightweight Champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.
Based on the true story of South Korean lightweight boxer Kim Deuk-gu, who fought World Lightweight Champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in the title fight that ended his life.
The film opens at Caesars Palace outdoor arena with Kim and Mancini squaring off in the first round of that infamous bout. Director Kwak Kyung-Taek and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo recreate all the electricity and excitement of a world title fight; implementing quick cut freeze frames with each punch thrown hitting with thunderous force signifying that a destructive war has begun. Kwak then switches to a reflective cut away of a young Kim sneaking away from his home and leaving for the big city, a contrast which dramatically sets into motion Kim’s inspiring yet tragic journey.
Much of the film focuses on Kim’s rise to fight glory, so cue some cool training montages and multiple fight compilations complete with an upbeat melody as Kim and his friends shadow box, skip rope, spar, and lift weights. Yet these don’t feel cliché, but rather refreshingly portray Kim’s growth from an uncertain novice into a singularly focussed in-ring warrior. You also get a quick insight into the Korean boxing scene, in particular, Dong-Ah gym’s authentic training regimen as coach Kim Hyeong-ji pushes his protégés to their limits. The real life Hyeong-ji was known for his iron fist management with strict discipline and the film pulls no punches in portraying this reputation.
Hyeong-ji is seen lecturing his fighters on the importance of good manners, and beating them across the back of their legs with a bat as punishment for poor performance. It also highlights the relationship between Deuk-gu and Heyong-ji, especially the latter’s fondness for his charge becoming the father figure Kim lacked in his youth.
The boxing bouts are more “Raging Bull” brutality than “Rocky” unrelenting, realistic, and harking back to a different era of boxing. To capture the exhilarating danger of Kim’s matches, Kwak Kyung-Taek puts the viewer ringside and smack bang in the middle of the action. With the cameras intermittently up close in the ring you can almost feel every body blow, every right hook and Kim’s devastating left punches all executed with speed and precision, as drips of blood and sweat fly off with every blow.
The fighting looks authentic, and star Yu Oh-seong’s training under stunt performer Jimmy Lui is evident in his convincing performance. Whilst Kim’s earlier fights are shown as exhilarating with lots of speed and thrill, the championship fight at the end is treated with reverence using stylised slow motion and ear shattering sound effects just enough to illustrate the fight’s viciousness. Kwak avoids glamorizing Kim’s death; it’s respectfully handled which, with foreknowledge of the gut-wrenching outcome subtly adds to the ensuing tragedy.
“Champion” is as authentic a boxing biopic as you’re likely to find. With Kim Deuk-gu having lived fully through his tragically short life (he was 27 years old) and the aftermath that followed, Kwak Kyung-Taek chose to focus on two of his biggest life events; his boxing and his blossoming romance with Lee Kyeong-mi. The abject poverty he lived, his depth of education and intelligence, troubled upbringing are sufficiently handled in moments such as flashback scenes of living rough, and his poorly paid labour intensive jobs.
Kwak’s film is a touching and earnest celebration of the man the world knew little about, his loves, close friendships with other fighters, and complicated family life. Yu Oh-seong gives a moving and likeable performance as Kim Deuk-gu a resolute young man, generous and kind who never seemed to lose his innocent naivety, and as a fighter gave of his all inside the gym and the ring.
- Speculators thought the match would’ve been an easy win for Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini as little was known about Kim, however Mancini did not underestimate his opponent. He told reporters “We’re going to have a war, no doubt about it.”
- Fight trainer Jimmy Lui went on to work with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in “The Medallion” and also with Yuen Woo-Ping and Keanu Reeves in “Man of Tai Chi”
- Following the fight Kim collapsed and fell into a coma. The cause of death was a subdural hematoma, an emergency operation proved futile and Kim died four days later.
- A spine tingling detail here -writing for “Sports Illustrated” Ralph Wiley covering the fight recalled seeing Kim pulling himself up on the ropes as he was dying describing it as “one of the greatest physical feats I have witnessed.”
- The changes to international boxing rules made following Kim’s death include; reduced rounds from 15 to 12, increased number of ropes from three to four to prevent fighters from falling through, and pre-fight medicals to include brain tests, lung tests, and electrocardiograms.
- In the 2011 documentary “The Good Son” charting his life and career, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini met Kim’s fiancé Lee Kyeong-mi, and their son Kim Chi-wan.