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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Fighting Spirit (투혼, Too-hon) 2011

Baseball film? Think again.

Kim Sang-jin is one of the biggest names of modern Korean cinema.  He got his start with early films such as Money in the Account (1995), Gangster Lessons (1996), and Two Cops 3 (1998) but always as a contracted director behind a big producer like Kang Woo-suk.  It wasn’t until 1999 that he got his real start with the anarchic hit Attack the Gas Station, which was stamped with Kim’s signature style that has since led to hit after hit.  He’s not the first name that comes to mind when considering the box office clout of Korean directors, but you would be hard pressed to name a director who has been a more consistent and impressive force on the Korean box office charts.  Attack the Gas Station became the second highest grossing Korean film of 1999, subsequently:  2001’s Kick the Moon came in at no. 3; Jail Breakers wound up at no. 4 in 2002; 2004’s Ghost House also had a no. 4 finish; and Kidnapping Granny K landed just outside the top 10 in 2007.

The interesting thing about all of these hits is that though they are all quite similar in tone and structure, they were all written by different people.  Kim has actually never written any of the films he’s directed, which is a testament to the force of his directing style and how recognizable it is on its own.  Kim’s best and most enduring works have been deranged blends of gang and youth violence (Attack the Gas Station, Kick the Moon), prison and romance (Jailbreakers), or horror and melodrama (Ghost House).  The common denominators between his films have been warring factions, anarchy, comedy, and immense climaxes between multiple large groups, a funny thing to be known for perhaps but very effective and memorable nonetheless.

Do-hun (Kim Joo-hyeok) caught in the act

In 2010, Kim made a follow-up to his original smash hit Attack the Gas Station The sequel had little of the impact of its predecessor and 11 years later it was no longer relevant to audiences, failing to leave an impression on the box office.  Late last year a new Kim film found its way into theaters with little to no fanfare.  I first heard about Fighting Spirit the week before it opened but I wasn’t aware of who made it at first.  Had I not known that it was a Kim Sang-jin film as I sat down to watch it, I probably never would have guessed it.   

Do-hun (Kim Joo-hyeok) is the star pitcher for the Lotte Giants, he is nearing the end of a brilliant career but he’s become arrogant and complacent in the wake of his success.  He’s been kicked out of his house after cheating on his wife (Kim Seon-ah) and is soon demoted to the minors.  He must now prove his worth to his teammates and to his estranged wife and children.  This brief synopsis seems to indicate a typical up-down-up sports trajectory of a fallen hero who will rise again but actually that isn’t really the case.  It’s nearly incidental that he’s a baseball player as the sporting angle is a front for what the film really is, a family melodrama.  Do-hoon’s wife Yoo-ran develops terminal cancer and this is the real crux of the film.  In fact, Fighting Spirit is essentially a cross between GLove and The Last Blossom, two mediocre 2011 films that appeared earlier in the year.

Park Cheol-min in a rare moment of calm

Kim Joo-hyeok is an actor I quite like who impressed me with his effortless performance in The Servant (2010) and has been doing steady work for years but audiences so far have not responded to his being recast as a leading man as both of his 2011 starring roles, the other being In Love and the War, have been major flops.  It’s hard to blame him since the scripts were so lacking but I wonder if he shouldn’t be more discerning with the projects he chooses to take on.  Kim Seon-ah (She's on Duty, 2005; S-Diary, 2004), as Do-hun’s long-suffering wife, is a little cold in her role, thereby nudging the audience to side with the boyish and charming Do-hun, despite his infidelities.  The representation of her character is proof that as gifted as Kim Sang-jin is, he’s never been particularly adept at handling female characters, they always lack depth in his films.  Park Cheol-min, who plays the Lotte Giants minor team coach, is one of those working actors who appears again and again in Korean cinema.  Last year alone he had eight roles, including Clash of the Families, Sector 7, Spellbound, and Suicide Forecast, which would seem to indicate that he’s well liked.  He’s a very over-the-top performer who tends to grin a lot and gesticulate with mock bravado.  His style never really changes:  it’s more a case of putting him in the right situations.  For instance his performance works in Clash of the Families while it is miserably out of place in Sector 7, thankfully he just about fits into this film.

I understand why Fighting Spirit didn’t make any money:  it doesn’t really know what it wants to be and it is very lacking in passion.  It’s by the numbers in its characterizations, plot elements, and resolutions but irregular in its tone and narrative.  What this amounts to in the end is a great director who, like Do-hun, was at the top of his game but seems to have lost his way.  Kim Sang-jin needs to get back on the saddle before he becomes a footnote in Korean cinema.


Do-hun's estranged family

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