Lifting King Kong, 2009, dir. by Park Keon-Hong, starring Lee Beom-So, Jo An, Lee Yun-Hee, Jeon Bo-Mi, etc., 120 mins
Has the moviegoing public been clamoring for a movie about Olympic weightlifting? I know I have, ever since I watched an oiled up Ivan Drago do a series of power cleans during his Rocky IV training montage. For me that moment—rather than Rocky’s speech about “change,” later appropriated by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign—was the film’s high point. Now, after decades of waiting,
all four the millions of us who wanted such a film have had our cries answered: South Korea’s 2009 Lifting King Kong.
Admittedly, South Korea’s film industry is not quite the international powerhouse of, say, Nigeria.* But that doesn’t mean it can’t produce some very fine films. Just last year (released 2013 in South Korea) US audiences had Bong Joon-ho’s excellent sci-fi action flick Snowpiercer, a film that laid out class warfare, inequality, and climate change with a potency rarely seen in US cinema.
Coincidentally, Snowpiercer is also the last South Korean film I watched. Which was also the first South Korean film I ever saw. And until the other night, when I watched Lifting King Kong, it was the only South Korean film I’d ever seen. So let’s just be upfront and state that my credibility in evaluating a film from South Korea in its proper context is essentially nonexistent (much like my lack of credentials in evaluating a Bulgarian weightlifting book). But that won’t stop me! Journalistic integrity has never been this site’s strong suit, and I’m not about to start mucking about with it now. What follows is a review wholly divorced from the context of South Korean cinema, written pretty much with my Western standards and expectations in mind (what else do I have?), as though evaluating a typewriter for its ability to connect to the internet. Caveat lector.
How, you might ask, did I even end up watching Lifting King Kong? In a word (or two): Amazon Prime. As anyone who has Amazon Prime knows, the streaming movie selection leaves something to be desired—though it does feature such classics as Bloodsport IV and Leprechaun: Origins. Once I’d made my way through those Oscar-worthy gems, Lifting King Kong seemed like the obvious choice. Plus, I’d actually heard about this film years ago, when Alex Lee posted training footage from the Korean team and noted there had been actors and actresses present to learn about weightlifting for an upcoming movie. This was in the wake of South Korea’s performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where two of their lifters—Sa Jae-Hyouk in the 77s and Jang Mi-ran in the 75+ class—took home gold medals, and a third (Yoon Jin-hee, 53) took bronze.
For a (former) weightlifter evaluating a weightlifting film, the first question that comes to mind is
What kind of lifting shoes are they wearing? How accurate is the lifting? In short, did the Korean actors and actresses do in their research? I.e., did they convincingly portray Olympic lifters? Did they convey a sense of having studied the lifts? A sense that the movements of the snatch and clean and jerk are in their very bones, as is the case with real-world Olympic-caliber athletes? Do they even lift, bro??
Let us simply say that they don’t seem to subscribe to the method acting of, say, Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s more Ralph Macchio as Daniel-san than Daniel Day-Lewis.
Indeed, despite being a weightlifting movie there’s not really a whole lot of actual weightlifting going on, aside from some strangely filmed competition sequences (lifters going in no particular order, appearing in different singlets, pooping their pants on the platform [seriously], etc.). Anyone hoping for insights into South Korean training methods is going to be sorely disappointed, unless tire dragging and lifting outdoors in the snow are legitimate South Korean training methods (cue hundreds of CrossFitters buying tires and outdoor lifting shoes).
Before we go too far into the details of what the film does contain, here’s the basic plot: an ex-lifter who missed out on gold at the 1988 Olympics due to a career-ending injury is now given a chance to coach a ragtag group of middle school girls to lifting glory. Hilarity and/or tear-jerking drama ensues. Note that the use of the word “ragtag” is not my choice; they’re actually called “ragtag” in the film (in the English subtitles). Anyone with information on “ragtag” in Korean is invited to clarify the shades of meaning here.
As an added twist, the film is said to be “Based on a True Story,” although (perhaps tellingly), the subtitle that mentions this includes a question mark.
They’re really, really stretching this “Based on a True Story” bit, from what I can gather (and what the film says at the end). To help separate fact from fiction, I’ve compiled a list of things that are true in the film that I’m pretty sure are also true in real life:
1) There is a country called South Korea
2) In that country, there are people who practice Olympic weightlifting
That pretty much does it.
So, what does the film consist of, if not the secrets of the South Korean weightlifting team? As best I can say, it can be roughly divided into three main components:
These aren’t mutually exclusive, and it’s not uncommon for two or three of these things to overlap (i.e., eating while crying), but the film generally features these things in the above sequential order. Indeed, the last ten or twenty minutes are pretty much uninterrupted crying (about which, more later).
In a weightlifting film eating might be expected, since weightlifters are known consumers of food. And in fact at one point the ex-lifter-cum-coach (Lee Ji-Bong, played by Beom-su Lee) asks for a kitchen in the lifters’ dorm, since eating is a necessary part of training. I’m with you so far. But much of the eating seems to serve no purpose other than to show people eating. There’s the easy gag of showing a bigger girl stuffing her face, but then there are lots of other shots of people just eating—loudly, messily, noisily, food dripping down their faces eating.
I could easily go on, but you probably get the gist. It’s like a propaganda film for food consumption, as though South Korean filmgoers needed constant reminders that eating is necessary for life. I’m not entirely sure what the point is, but ever since watching the movie I’ve had an insatiable desire to buy lots of Korean food…
Yelling and violent outbursts make up another significant chunk of the film. For much of the acting, there seem to be two options: (1) low-level, normal conversation, and (2) emotional explosions on the scale of a typhoon carrying wolverines riding hydrogen bombs that’s just hit land in the middle of an earthquake. Maybe this is Korean method acting. And it’s seen not just in the evil-villain coach character (the nemesis of the good-guy coach), who would be almost comically evil were he not so sadistic (he spends as much time paddling the girls as he does yelling at them and slapping them in the face). Anyone might be overcome by the nuclear typhoon of angry outbursts, including the good-guy coach (who stops himself from paddling the girls only when he sees they’re already bruised from the other coach’s beating).
And then crying. It’s difficult to convey just how much crying there is in this film, and how severe it is. A couple years ago, the interwebz was abuzz with the fact that
Angela Chase Claire Danes actually looks like she’s crying when she cries in films and on TV.
Apparently, people can’t accept anything other than Keanu-like stoicism from women who cry onscreen.
God help those people are if they ever see Lifting King Kong. These women make
Angela Chase Claire Danes look like a high school drama club actress, in terms of crying fervor and intensity. They look like women who’ve just watched their families die at the hands of a typhoon bearing wolverines riding hydrogen bombs. They wail like ancient Greek mourners turned to eleven: snot running down their noses, breast-beating, rivers of tears, screams, and (seriously) the rending of clothing.
I haven’t seen crying like this since I found out Klokov and Akkaev pulled out of the 2012 Olympics. (Oh god, here it comes again. I thought I’d moved on…)
Knowing all this, is Lifting King Kong worth checking out? Sure, especially if you have Amazon Prime and have already watched Bloodsport IV. For a weightlifting fan it’s actually quite fun to see how our sport is portrayed by and for outsiders (we can assume that the intended audience is not primarily weightlifters). The story—despite being a
lotta little bit cliched—is enjoyable, and certain elements do give insights into South Korean athletics, such as institutional funding for school sports and the development of younger athletes. There are also several moments of real comedy, along with the sort of comforting life lessons you expect from a sports movie.
True, the actual lifting won’t win any awards, but ultimately this isn’t a film about lifting technique. It’s a sports story that looks at the sometimes harsh realities of being a top athlete—and the harsh realities of middle and high school kids who don’t quite fit in with the crowd. It’s also about the bond between a coach and athletes, something I think most lifters can appreciate (along with all the eating). It also features several female leads and strong female characters, which puts South Korean cinema light years ahead of most Hollywood films. And while the technique may not live up to weightlifters’ standards, it’s certainly no worse than what you’re going to see in some CrossFits. So yes, by all means, spend a couple hours watching this, if you have the chance and are interested.
And with that, I leave you in the grace and favor of a man who deserves a feature length film about his yell alone.
* All kidding aside, Nigeria’s film industry is huge (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinema_of_Nigeria)