LKFF Fist of Legend
Friday 15th November 2013
Last night’s screening of Fist of Legend included a Q&A session with director Woo-suk Kang and actor Je-mun Yun, which, although very slowly translated back and forth between Korean and English, was a privilege to attend. I even got to ask the director a question. I know, right? How often does that happen? LKFF rules! I asked Woo-suk Kang if he had any ideas how the South Korean film industry had grown to be so strong, with such consistently high production values, such quality acting and so many powerful stories. And do you know what he said?
Because Korean audiences love and support Korean cinema.
A simple but extremely revealing answer. Kang said that Korean audiences will almost always choose to see a native film rather than an American one. It’s a very interesting point, which makes me wonder whether the British film industry would be in much better shape now if we, the public, had eschewed the unsophisticated popcorn fare constantly fired at us out of gigantic American ass-cannons in favour of more subtle and nuanced homegrown cinema. Obviously bigger audiences mean more money to make more films… I guess it’s really a chicken/egg situation though; are Korean films good because Koreans spend money to see them, or do Koreans spend money to see them because they’re good?
I mean, American filmmakers have enjoyed enormous budgets for decades and, generally speaking, the quality of their storytelling seems to be heading down the toilet. So it can’t all be about the money. Korean filmmakers, while enjoying huge support from their patriotic countrymen, still have tiny budgets to play with compared to big Hollywood directors like Michael Bay. For example, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, one of the more visually spectacular Korean films I’ve seen cost an estimated $10,000,000. That may seem like a lot of money to average joes like you and me, but by Hollywood standards it’s only half of Will Smith’s fee for one movie. If you look at a monstrosity like Michael Bay’s third Transformers film, Dark of the Moon, it cost an estimated $195,000,000! So obviously money is no guarantee of quality. And that’s the understatement of the century when applied to Michael Bay…
There must be more to the story than just money. In fact, I think it could be because the majority of Korean filmmakers aren’t doing it for the money in the first place. Watch any of the films on my Top Ten Korean Films list and I think you’ll see that all of them are made out of a burning desire to tell great stories. The fact that hordes of South Koreans pay to see these films because they’re good means that the industry makes money almost by accident. The films are profitable because they have relatively low budgets and attract discerning audiences using high standards of filmmaking. The profits then make it easier to finance future films and spur growth in the industry. The unfortunate truth in Hollywood is that budgets are so big that it’s a huge investment to make a film in the first place. Therefore very few studios are willing to take artistic risks; they want something that has been a proven success in the past, hence sequels, remakes and other unoriginal crap. They therefore need a huge star and plenty of explosions to attract audiences because their story certainly won’t do it. The salaries of big actors and the cost of special effects then inflate the cost of the film so much that those insane budgets become necessary. Pretty much every decision on these films is made in an attempt to recoup an investment, it’s nothing to do with making a great film that people will want to see. Ironically though, a genuinely good film can be made for a fraction of the price and can still make money. People like to see stuff they haven’t seen before, and I think the Korean model is evidence of that. Quality, original films are being made all the time and people are turning up in droves to see them. Isn’t that more sustainable than churning out a shit film that most people are already bored of for hundreds of millions of dollars, and then spending another few million on advertising to bully those people into seeing it? Instead of making a gold-plated turd and spending millions trying to convince people it’s a donut, why not just make a tasty donut and let the product sell itself? It would be a lot cheaper, and the customer would be much more likely to come back for more.
All three of the films I saw this year at the LKFF were almost sold out. And these are films with subtitles, showing as part of a festival, with little mainstream publicity behind them… To put that in perspective, I went to see Alien vs. Predator (I know, don’t ask) at the Odeon in Leicester Square, a two hundred seat venue, and there were five people in the audience. True quality sells itself. Well, it will still need publicity to start with, but once people actually enjoy it and tell their friends, you get a word-of-mouth campaign for free. Whereas if you hire Colin Farrell’s eyebrows for ten million dollars and remake Total Recall you can fool a bunch of people into seeing it, but they go away and tell their friends; “You’re better off taking that £10 you would have spent and paying someone to batter you in the nuts with an angry skunk for two hours. I guarantee it will be a more enjoyable experience.” By the way, if you’re thinking of forking out for the DVD of Total Recall I’ll offer you that very same advice. Unless it’s the original film starring the mighty Arnold. In which case buy the DVD and witness true movie magic.
Anyway, I think you get the point I’m making here; I enjoyed Fist of Legend because it’s a great film. The direction is superb, the script is inspiring and the acting is brilliant throughout. It’s a lot like the 2011 film Warrior, you remember the one, with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton? Please tell me you saw that, it was actually good. Anyway, Fist of Legend shares a similar theme; it’s about middle-aged martial artists returning to the ring (or cage, arena, octagon, whatever) for one last chance at proving themselves. Warrior was remarkable for being a serious but still very watchable drama about fighting. Fist of Legend is far more light-hearted in tone but still wrestles with some weighty issues. The film is about three friends who got into more than their fair share of fisticuffs as kids but are now living pretty ordinary, mundane lives in their forties. Well, two of them have jobs and kids and all that everyday stuff. The third one is a gangster. So maybe he’s not that ordinary.
The turning point for the three buddies comes when they’re dragged into a reality TV show of sorts, called Fist of Legend. The show is basically a way for TV producers to exploit out-of-shape, middle aged men by sticking them in the ring with a professional mixed martial artist for the audience’s amusement. Of course, most of the men get destroyed before the end of the first round. But when our hero Deok-kyu Lim pulls a surprise win out of his ass, everything changes. Soon, his two mates are in on the action and they give middle-aged men across Korea a shot at redemption; it seems life doesn’t end at forty. Fist of Legend is actually surprisingly moving given that it’s a light-hearted martial arts picture. The three main characters are immensely well developed and likeable. We’re drawn into their lives, sympathizing with the things they’ve had to do (and give up) to meet their responsibilities as adults and family men.
There are surprising moments of humour throughout, many of them courtesy of Je-mun Yun who has displayed extraordinary comedic talent in previous films The Host and The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Here, his gangster gets some of the biggest giggles from the audience as he persistently dogs Deok-kyu for a rematch after being beaten up by him at school. The story of how the three main characters became friends inspires a lot of laughter. The funniest moment of the film is probably the first fight on the TV show, when the middle-aged contestant is purported to have single-handedly bested fourteen men in one fight. Of course, when he steps into the arena as a fat, forty-five year old in a vest and boxer shorts we can’t help but laugh. Korean cinema is full of quirky and surprising humour that grows organically out of character and story. The jokes here are similarly natural, never feeling forced or contrived.
Despite the genuine warmth Woo-suk Kang obviously feels for his characters, he’s not afraid to serve them up excruciating amounts of pain. The fight scenes feel as real as anything you’ll see in more graphic martial arts films. There’s no evidence of choreography here. During the Q&A session after the screening, actor Je-mun Yun painted a vivid picture of the training and conditioning the actors went through to prepare. He himself lost two molars during the shooting of one fight scene. In order to make the bouts appear realistic the actors were encouraged to hold nothing back; the punches and kicks are real and it shows when you watch the film. The director made a joke of his ruthlessness, but I got the sense he meant what he said; “I told the actors to be careful and not to injure themselves. However I also said that if they were hurt I would continue filming because I wanted to get the best shot.” So there’s plenty of brutal mixed martial arts action to keep the fight fans satisfied.
The film has been a big success in Korea, but Kang was incredibly humble about his achievements. He even said before the screening; “The film is a little long. But it’s still quite good.” While his criticism may be true, the film runs at 153 minutes, the action never becomes boring or slow. There are a few bizarre sub-plots which don’t feel vital to the machinery of the story, but even these are entertaining enough to justify their presence. In one example Deok-kyu’s daughter is bullied by some kids at school and he fights the bullies. Nothing ever seems to come of the incident and the story could have been told without it. However, the scene still adds to the overall theme of the film; reinforcing the idea that the responsibilities of the middle-aged man need not mean his life is over.
In all, the film made for a fantastic evening’s entertainment. The impressions I got from people leaving the cinema were all extremely positive. Kang and Yun received several grateful rounds of applause from the festival audience during and after the Q&A. Fist of Legend is his nineteenth film as director. I saw Moss at the film festival back in 2010 and can definitely say he’s a talent to watch out for.
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