Lifting King Kong
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of sports movies that I enjoy: goofball comedies, and inspirational stories. Today’s movie strives to be both, and manages it with remarkable ease. Providing an astonishingly successful emotional ride, to a completely satisfying conclusion. It’s based on a true story, worthy of Hollywood, but from half a world away. Today’s movie is Lifting King Kong, a 2009 release from Korea, was also released under the alternate English title of Bronze Medalist.
The film stars Lee Beom-Soo as Lee Ji-Bong, an Olympic weightlifter who suffers a severe elbow injury at the 1988 Seoul games. The injury dashes his hopes for a gold medal, and he has to settle for bronze. His career is then brought to an end when doctors treating his injured arm discover that he has a severely enlarged heart, meaning that he cannot participate in any vigorous physical activity. After bouncing through a series of dead-end jobs Lee reluctantly accepts a job as the coach of the new weightlifting team at a girl’s middle school in a very remote area.
The film continues on course, setting up like a typical sports comedy. Coach Lee assembles a ragtag mix of six young women, each of whom is interested in the weightlifting program for a different reason. As Lee is completely disenchanted with weightlifting as a sport he instead uses what leverage he has to look after his girls’ well-being. The film is genuinely funny throughout this phase of the plot, as the motley team slowly gels as a unit, despite some embarrassingly poor performances at an early meet.
Just when the team is beginning to show some real progress, having re-awakened Lee’s love for his sport, a wrench is thrown in the works. The school year ends and several of the girls graduate to high school. It is also around this point that the film transitions from goofball comedy to genuine drama. The coach at the high school, an embittered old rival of Lee’s initially wants nothing to do with Lee’s students, knowing only of their poor early performances, so he allows them to continue to train under Lee instead. However, once they start winning, he becomes jealous, and flexes his authority to take over their instruction. The new coach proves to be something of a sadist, coming down with brutal corporal punishment, and he goes to very extreme lengths to drive a wedge between his new team members and their old coach, and providing some incredible drama in the last half hour of the film.
Normally a film that shifted gears as completely as Lifting King Kong does, would be extremely off-putting, but this film does it with surprising grace. There are enough dramatic moments during the light first half, that the heavy drama later doesn’t seem out of place, and the transition is really quite seamless, by the time the film becomes a heavy drama, the emotions feel completely earned, and completely real. The cast is fantastic, Lee Beom-Soo is thoroughly believable as the embittered fallen hero turned inspiring coach. The six young actresses who portray the athletes are supurb, portraying six distinct character, each with her own emotional journey.
In the end, this is perhaps the most emotionally powerful films I’ve reviewed so far. It’s uplifting and inspiring story of athletes competing in a grueling sport that the characters readily admit “is not popular,” is both surprising and genuine. This movie is a goofball sports flick. It’s also a tale of an unlikely group of misfits coming together to form a virtual family unit. It’s a story of overcoming adversity. It’s an inspiring sports drama of the highest order. It’s a must see movie.