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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Foul King (Banchikwang) 2000

Kim Jee-woon is famed for his beautifully crafted and violent films, so it was a bit of a reminder for me to see The Foul King (2000), his sophomore feature and until now the only one I had not seen form his filmography. It was a swift reminder that his films were not always as polished, however the film is definitely Kim’s as it showcases his trademark dark humor and fascination with the dark human psyche.

One of the most visible Korean films of the moment is Kim’s sixth film, the brutal I Saw the Devil (2010), an uncompromising vision of just how primal our instincts can be and how our hypocrisy can excuse even the most horrific behavior. As far as its aesthetics, plot, and casting are concerned, it brings to mind A Bittersweet Life (2005) the most, which also stars Lee Byung-hun as a man driven to merciless and unrelenting revenge. From a thematic standpoint though, it recalls Kim’s inspired debut, The Quiet Family (1998), a very original black comedy that was remade by Takashi Miike as The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). This film, about a family that runs mountain lodge, follows their misfortune, as accidental deaths taint their new venture until they become violent and amoral by the narrative’s conclusion. Just like I Saw the Devil, The Quiet Family assumes that everyone has the potential for unspeakable violence. 

Dae-ho in the grip of his boss' headlock
The Foul King is not quite so dark, but it cannot escape the director’s interest in our questionable morality as human beings. Song Kang-ho plays a discontent and ineffectual bank clerk (Im Dae-ho) whose sole ambition is to be able to break out of the grip of his boss’ headlock. When his frustration becomes too much, he pursues wrestling in order to attain his goal. The narrative doesn’t get much denser than this, there’s subplot involving his colleague and we meet his disinterested father a few times.

It is not uncommon to hate your boss and to want to beat him, so at first Dae-ho’s focus on it does not seem strange but it is the catalyst for all the violence that he surrounds himself throughout the film. He gets in touch with his aggression and this has two clear effects: on the one hand, it spurs his ambition, he becomes dedicated to wrestling, trains diligently, and eventually gains people’s respect, including his own; on the other hand what starts as a venture to defend himself against his bully boss leads him to stab people in the head with forks and other acts of violence which are less and less fuelled by revenge and become geared towards entertainment.

Just like The Quiet Family, The Foul King exhibits Kim’s knack for black comedy, this is ultimately the film’s greatest strength and due in no small part to Song Kang-ho-s central performance, one of his first leading roles. This is also the role that made him a star and it's easy to see why. I've spoken many times about the emasculated males that are so prevalent in Korean film and it makes sense to bring it up again here as Song's character and performance carry all the traits commonly associated with this phenomena, such as the hierarchical nature of his professional life and the unconventional, and comical, nature of his fight scenes.

The climactic fight
The film may not be the technical masterpiece that Kim’s later films would be but it does employ some clever techniques, especially in it’s dizzying, brutal, and lengthy wrestling finale. Slow motion and other editing techniques are used effectively and framing, as well as props and production design add a welcome note of absurdity to the proceedings.

Perhaps the film’s most important theme, and certainly an important one for moviegoers around the world who seek the confines of musty theaters for escape and respite, is the search for and confirmation of identity. Dae-ho is shy and unassertive but he becomes a decent wrestler, although he needs to wear a mask, and since he is the cheating ‘Foul King’, he has no honor. This helps him in his private and professional life but he must still do away with the mask, as he can ony confront his father and profess his love for a colleague from behind it. In the film’s visceral and climactic wrestling scene, his mask is finally torn off. This spurs him to equally match his superior opponent but Kim has a little fun with this ‘self-discovery’ when Dae-ho confronts his boss for a final showdown, which is scored with Western musical cues, only to slip as he charges towards him. Very funny but also telling, how much can a person really change?

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