You were probably wondering how, given the fact that the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling vehicle finished a mighty 68 at the 1987 box office (nestled between the Steve Reeves led Superman IV: Quest For Peace and the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Burglar)—how, you were probably wondering, has it come to pass that there has never been a sequel, remake or even the faintest whispers of a soft reboot? Or a Korean version, for that matter.
Well, wonder no more! At least about the Korean version because there is now, in fact, a Korean version.
And, yeah, it’s way better than the ’87 movie. Duh. But it’s probably not much less hokey.
In this movie, our hero is Mark (Dong-seok Ma, Along With Gods), a Korean who was adopted by an American family and works as a bouncer in a club in L.A. (The Koreans, charmingly, refer to such children as “the abandoned”.) He’s tricked into coming back to Korea for an arm-wrestling competition that can make him some cash. (He’s tricked by his weaselly pal, played by Kwon Yul, who also played a weasel in A Special Lady, if memory serves.) Weaselly pal, though, lets him know where his birth mother was living, which leads to Mark heading back—reluctantly, comically—to confront her.
Dong-seok Ma is a charming actor, and he plays on his size very well—okay, he’s about my size, but that’s pretty big in parts of Korea—and his general agreeableness and self-parody are a big part of what powers the movie. He can also turn on a dime (which, ya gotta be able to do in these Asian pictures) and give your character his dignity and honor when it matters.
Of course, the arm wrestling circuit is corrupt, and this provides a certain degree of the tension, as Mark realizes this is his last chance to be a real champion (he’s come close many times). Ma is actually 47, but he’s playing 37, as I recall. Doesn’t matter.
The real wrinkle comes when he discovers he has a sister and a niece. He slowly settles into a role as brother and uncle, but as slowly as it happens, it’s also fierce. His sister tells him a lot about his mother, and the two form an bond as Mark comes to understand his mother’s motivations, at least at some level.
There’s a twisteroo at the end of the second act which pushes Mark to challenge all that he has come to believe up to that point, and force him to weigh whether a championship is worth more than his newfound family, and I’m not gonna spoil it. It’s maybe a little forced, or maybe it’s just a little more Korean—different values than Americans, or at least this native Californian. It doesn’t feel too awkward overall, and the movie is sympathetic to him at this darkest of points.
The ending is nicely over-the-top (and the Stallone movie is referenced, by the way) and the denouement satisfying in all the right ways. The Boy and I both enjoyed it.