There’s little in the underdog sports dramedy “Champion” that feels vital, aside from its star. Korean American actor and athlete Ma Dong-seok (billed here as “Don Lee”) has a grace that makes him fun to follow, even in an over-slick retread of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” and “Over the Top.”
Ma plays Mark, an arm wrestler discovered by likable-but-shady hustler Jin-ki (Kwon Yul) in the United States and enticed to move to Korea to compete on a professional circuit. He immediately develops a connection to his new home, thanks to Sun-jin (Han Ye-ri), a single mother with whom he has an unexpected family connection.
Writer-director Kim Yong-wan delivers a palatable product, with leftover ingredients. “Champion” piles on cutesy scenes of Mark hanging out with Sun-jin’s adorable young kids, who’d qualify as “comic relief” if the film as a whole weren’t so lighthearted.
The plot involves the usual boxing drama elements, transferred to the world of arm-wrestling. There are gangsters and fixes, and a steady rise for Mark as he works toward a prestigious tournament and a seemingly unbeatable foe.
Ma, though, is as sweet as he is imposing and brings depth to a shallow story. Whether he’s crashing a wedding with the youngsters because he can’t afford to buy them dinner, or he’s enjoying the feeling of slamming an opponent’s hand down to the table, his Mark is a winning hero.
In Korean with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
Playing: CGV Cinema, Los Angeles; CGV Buena Park, Buena Park