Its inspirational sports time again with “Bronze Medallist” (a.k.a. “Lifting King Kong”) from Korea, marking the directorial debut of Park Geon Yong, who had previously worked on the blockbuster “Typhoon”. Although its themes are common enough, the film earns extra points both for having been inspired by a true story, and for the fact that it focuses on a rather obscure sport in women’s weightlifting. With popular actor Lee Bum Soo (recently in “More Than Blue” and the teen horror “Death Bell”) in the lead role, the film also features a number of up and coming young actresses as his charges, including Jo An (“Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait”), Lee Yoon Hoi (“Perfect Couple”), Choi Moon Kyung, Jeon Bo Mi, and Kim Min Young, all getting their chance to show off their strength.
The film begins with weightlifter Ji Bong (Lee Bum Soo), nicknamed King Kong, injuring himself at the 1988 Olympics and only managing to win Bronze as a result. After a number of years in the wilderness of forced retirement, he reluctantly takes on the job of weightlifting coach at a small town girls’ school. Things don’t get off to a great start, with Ji Bong being decidedly lacking in enthusiasm, and with the girls themselves being reluctant to commit to the unpopular sport, not least since it involves bulking up and putting on weight. However, they slowly get into the swing of things, and their spirit grows as they work their way up to becoming genuine contenders for glory.
As should be obvious, “Bronze Medallist” is a predictable affair, with all of the boxes of the form being duly ticked on its route from ragtag losers to potential champions. However, the underdog sports story and its upbeat, inspirational kick is very much the genre’s lifeblood and indeed its raison d’être, and as such what matters here more than originality is whether or not the film engages and offers up a set of characters that are likeable enough to root for. Thankfully, “Bronze Medallist” scores highly on both counts, benefiting from a grounded feel and from its being a largely character driven affair – thanks in part to the fact that weightlifting is essentially a sport which sees participants competing against themselves, rather than against the usual stereotypical black wearing ‘evil team’ so often seen in the genre.
Interestingly, for large parts of the film, the sport itself doesn’t even play a major role, with most of the challenges faced by Ji Bong and his girls coming through personal problems or authority figures. Lee Bum Soo turns in a good performance as the embittered coach, battling his own insecurities as he gradually comes out of his shell, and though its obvious from the start that he is a nice guy at heart, his increasing efforts to help the girls, in particular the unfortunate orphan Young Ja (Jo An) are still quite moving. With the girls themselves suffering from parental issues, bullying and boy trouble, the film arguably works more as a drama or personal journey than as a sports story in a traditional sense, though this turns out to be no bad thing, helping it to stand out from the crowded playing field. Even more importantly, this investment in its characters means that the film is surprisingly affecting, and when the competitive scenes do arrive, they are all the more rousing for the fact that the viewer actually cares about the girls.
Although the film is quite harsh in places, director Park manages to keep things bright and breezy for the most part, and whilst things are played straight rather than wacky, it is light hearted and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Thankfully, he refrains from including much in the way of overt comedy, though there is plenty of music and the expected training montages, which given the nature of the sport tend to be quite outlandish. Crucially, he manages to achieve the all important sense of camaraderie needed to lift the film, with the characters all supporting each other through trials both sporting and teenage girl related. As a result, the film is one of the few of its kind to be not only exciting and emotive, but also believable.
Thanks to this, “Bronze Medallist” is certainly one of the more rewarding films of its kind, and should be enjoyed even by those who normally steer clear of clichéd underdog sports stories. Anchored by a strong lead turn from Lee Bum Soo and a well developed set of characters, although the film doesn’t offer anything new, it grips and entertains throughout in a way which so many other similarly themed efforts fail to.
Geon-yong Park (director) / Geon-yong Park, Se-yeong Bae (screenplay)
CAST: Beom-su Lee … Olympic bronze medalist
An Jo … Park Yeong-ja
Yoon-hoi Lee … Song Min-hee
Moon-kyeong Choi … Seo Yeo-soon
Bo-mi Jeon … Bbang-sun-ee