Thursday, December 5, 2013

Busan 2013 Review: Balls of Fury - The King of Jogku

Part of MKC's coverage of the 18th Busan International Film Festival.

(by Rex Baylon)

The struggle of one team or individual to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles has been popular fodder for films since the silent era. Early silent shorts by esteemed comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd have built entire careers by donning the role of the underdog. In these early works the template for all future sports films, comedy or otherwise, was set down in cinematic stone. The hero is often schlubby, unpopular, and often pegged as more dreamer than doer. A love interest is usually injected into the story to offer our hero pep talks and scold them for losing focus. And, of course, the film’s antagonist is the very embodiment of physical perfection, though with one thing lacking, the spirit of the “good” sportsman. While our hero may not be able to shoot a basket through a hoop or net, fight like one of the Cobra Kai, or have a well-toned physique our titular hero is a stand-in for us, born with all our faults but embodying our most treasured ideals.

In Woo Moon-gi’s 2013 Busan entry, The King of Jogku (2013), all the tropes discussed are clearly present in the film but whereas later incarnations of the sports film embraced triumph through sportsmanship and allowed the protagonist to revel in the glory of getting the girl as well as the gold Woo’s debut is less congratulatory and more realistic. Our hero Manseob is not the typical “loser” who suffers social indignities alone without any friends, devoid of social graces, and a poor specimen of a man. In fact, he is the epitome of average, with the exception of being a better than average jogku player.

Now for those of you who aren’t Korean or have never lived and worked for an extended time in South Korea the sport of Jogku will most likely be unfamiliar. So a quick break down of the game will be necessary. First of all, jokgu is a sport invented by the South Korean military in the mid-60s as a way for conscripted men to exercise during long stretches of down time. Combining elements of volleyball and American soccer jokgu differs from the two sports in two very important ways. First, whereas volleyball allows you the use of your hands and soccer requires a player to place a ball through an opposing team’s goal in jokgu players can only use their feet, shins, and head and teams score by serving the ball in such a way to prevent the opposing team from returning the serve. It is a sport that is, due mainly to its origin, played by men and rarely do women show any interest in the sport.

And for most of Woo’s feature this is the case since there is only one female jokgu player and her primary reason for joining Manseob’s team is to lose weight. Though in defense of the director she isn’t placed in the film as a one-note fat joke and is given some back story and an arc that coincidentally loops together with another character’s story, the lanky seaweed chomping Changho. It’s these supporting characters that make up Manseob’s team and it is these characters that add a lot of depth to the drama as foils for Manseob to interact with in the film.

As a character Manseob is unique in the sports film genre in that he is proficient in the sport that the film is about and the prerequisite training montage is practically nonexistent. The main conflict(s) in The King of Jogku is less athletic and more romantic. The meet-cute between Manseob and his love interest, the bubbly Anna, is cleverly done in a college English class. Instead of Manseob being a milquetoast, the director, Woo, and the actor playing Manseob has him being quite outgoing, positive, and self-assured. Manseob’s interactions with Anna as he reveals his heart to her is a rollercoaster ride of conflicting emotions as Anna pulls Manseob towards her with a smile and then, within the literal span of seconds, is slapping him in the face when he starts to hope for too much of a future with her. This mix of love and revulsion between the pair is a nice antidote to typical female love interests in other sports films who embody girl-next-door values or are portrayed as being just figurative trophies for our hero to win.

Manseob may work as hard at winning Anna’s love as he does winning at jogku, but there’s never the feeling that the loss of one would result in tragedy for him. These low stakes might make you question exactly where the conflict is in Woo’s film but doing so would miss the entire point of the story. The cliché trope of pitting the underdog against the champion in the big tournament is upturned by the fact that Manseob is both champion and underdog. During the entire runtime of the film Manseob has proven himself to be the most pure-hearted, the best jogku player, and also capable of winning the heart of a beautiful girl. He should win and, spoiler alert, does but instead of the usual sappy happy ending. Our valiant athlete is granted a far more useful prize, his freedom.

The King of Jogku abandons clear black and white characters. Manseob, from start to end, is the only character that is neither arrogant nor insecure. When he loves something he loves it unabashedly. And aside from him every character in the story exhibits exaggerated but no less believable traits. Robbed of any villains to hiss at Woo Moon-gi’s debut is in its own way asking us to examine the old adage that “winning is everything.” What does it mean to win at something? And once we do get that much beloved prize why is the sense of satisfaction we are supposed to feel so fleeting? Whether it’s a game we play for fun, a career we chase after, or some personal pursuit we obsess over these questions matter.


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