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Star power distinguishes lighthearted Korean arm wrestling drama 'Champion'

Star power distinguishes lighthearted Korean arm wrestling drama 'Champion'
Ma Dong-seok (billed here as “Don Lee”) in the movie "Champion." (Well Go USA)

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.

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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.

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‘Champion’

In Korean with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

Playing: CGV Cinema, Los Angeles; CGV Buena Park, Buena Park

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