|Dancing, snow, and horses, what's not to like?|
The last Korean horse-racing themed picture to come our way was last year’s woeful Kim Tae-hee vehicle Grand Prix, which I savaged when I reviewed it a few months ago. 2011 has seen fit to grace us with a new equine melodrama in Champ, which was a little more successful (though not a hit) and features decent pedigree with a cast comprising Cha Tae-hyun, Yu Oh-seung, Kim Sang-ho, and Baek Yoon-shik (in a brief role). Though I wasn’t expecting much, as the film seemed quite melodramatic and cloying, I was cautiously optimistic that I was sitting down to a decent film. That fanciful notion was torn asunder nearly as quickly as the light of the first frame reached my iris. Dare I say it, Champ might even be worse than Grand Prix, though it is a close photo-finish race for last place.
The conceit of Champ is straightforward but nonetheless predictable and contrived. Seung-ho (Cha Tae-hyun) is a successful jockey but after a car accident leaves him injured and a widow, he is unable to work. Things take a turn for the worse when he borrows money from the wrong people and he goes on the run with his daughter, ending up on Jeju island at a stable for training mounted police. Horse trainer Yoon is the man who drove the other vehicle in the crash all those years ago. He was driving a horse, who was injured, and its foal, who died. Since then the damaged horse has been unrideable and now both she and Seung-ho will attempt to make it back to the race track.
|To the rescue!|
We are lead to believe that the horse is mourning the death of its foal, years after the fact, this of course mirrors the death of Seung-ho’s wife. As unlikely a proposition as that sounds, I could just about swallow it but shortly thereafter, the horse saved Seung-ho from drowning in a stupefying underwater sequence. Later still, the horse nods in the affirmative at one of its trainer’s questions. Perhaps these elements could have found a place in a broad comedy but make no mistake, despite a few attempts at lame humour, Champ is a melodrama on steroids.
|Waste of talent: Baek Yoon-shik, Cha Tae-hyun, and Kim Sang-ho|
Despite what seems like a strong cast, the performances in the film leave much to be desired. Aside from on early sequence where Seung-ho and his daughter pretend to be sports announcers as they watch a horse race on TV, Cha Tae-hyun is never given a chance to show off his skills as an energetic, fast-talking comedian, instead he wanders around depressed and puts on a stupid grin every so often. Kim Sang-ho, who really impressed me in this year’s Moby Dick and the K-Drama City Hunter, becomes a nuisance very quickly as he hams it up and throws himself around with his repetitive pratfalls. Oh Yu-seong may not be a top flight actor, but he was a strong presence in films like Beat (1997) and Friend (2001), here he is simply miscast, he’s too dry and has no comic timing. Most insufferable of all, just like in Grand Prix, is the little girl who wails throughout most of this lengthy punishment of a film. It’s not cute crying either, her protracted ear-piercing shrieks are so devastating, that they seem to carry through to other scenes.
Frankly, what was I expecting? Unlike other sports such as boxing and baseball, horse-racing has not really had an illustrious history of representation on screen. In recent memory there was 2003’s Oscar-bait against-the-odds based-on-a-true-story Seabiscuit, which almost made me want to throw myself under a galloping horse. Last year, Disney tries a similar gambit with Secretariat, which, though I had an opportunity to see it before its release, I couldn’t bring myself to sit through. The best films featuring the racetrack typically focus away from the action happening on it like the anarchic brilliance of the Marx Brothers classic A Day at the Races (1937) or Kubrick’s dark early caper The Killing (1956). While of late Korea may have blighted the relatively small crop of horse-racing films on offer, US premium cable channel HBO may have found an answer in Luck, a racetrack drama with a myriad of characters from Deadwood creator David Milch which will begin to air in January. I was lucky enough to see the pilot, directed by Michael Mann, this past summer and though it was an early cut, it was phenomenal and may give this sub-genre a reason to exist in future.
|Horse race or moonwalk?|
Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).
To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.