Saturday, December 12, 2009


Original Title: Yeokdosan
Year: 2004
Director: Hae-sung Song
Writer: Hae-sung Song
Genre: Drama, Sport Biography

A chronicle of the life of Korean-born wrestler Rikidozan, who, after being barred from Japanese wrestling because of his ethnic origins, became a sensation in the United States in the 1950s and then the father or pro-wrestling and a national hero in Japan.

After my huge intro a couple days ago, I'll bet you were expecting Body Slam or something, yeah?

Well, I am using Foul King as a jumping off point into the world of pro-wrestling cinema and diving immediately into another Korean wrestling film, this one a serious drama. Serious dramas like Rikidozan, similarly to The Wrestler from 2008, are few and far between. This is due to the fact probably that pro-wrestling really isn't taken seriously (and probably rightfully so) by most people. Usually a serious wrestling story will be one of the shady underside of the sport, like the Wrestler.

But Rikidozan instead shows the fame that was built by a Korean wrestler in Japan and how be became a national hero. While it has its moments of tragedy, from Mitsuhiro Momota's humble beginnings as a sumo wrestler, to his struggles with alcohol and prescription abuse, to his death from a stabbing in a nightclub, the film also has the highs and glory that he experienced through his relatively short career.

This all was for me by far the most interesting aspect of the film. I never knew the details of Rikidozan's rise to fame. Really all I knew about him was that he was known as The Father of Puroresu (Japanese word for pro-wrestling), and that he died from being stabbed. Oh, and I never knew about the ties of early Japanese pro wrestling with the Yakuza!

And I call myself a fan of wrestling? Bah!

Rikidozan was to Japan what Santo was to Mexico or maybe Hulk Hogan was to the United States. Being Korean, he was heavily discriminated against, especially early on as a sumo trainee, and this makes it all the more impressive that he became the hero he did. At times the film implies that he possibly hid his nationality, but I'm not entirely sure how common the knowledge of his nationality actually was. The story is rather well told and straightforwardly presented, except for a love story that was presented between Riki and his wife Aya. But the overall tale of his rise to fame is the real meant and potatoes, and the driving force.

Japan felt trod upon by America after the Second World War, and Rikidozan being successful, particularly against American opponents, really helped to unify Japan and give them pride as a nation again. Maybe the point is over-exaggerated in the film, but you can really see how Riki's timing was key and why he became as huge as he did. The sport was not really known in the country, and through Rikidozan not only was pro-wrestling introduced, but also became very huge there with it catching on as television did also.

The other high point for me was the performance of Kyung-gu Sol as Rikidozan. I've not seen Sol before, but apparently he gained a lot of weight for the role, learned Japanese, and he appears to do all of his own stuntwork in the film. If it was not him taking the backdrops and chair shots, then director Hae-sung Song did a remarkable job masking it. At times he was a bit melodramatic, but I suspect that me just as much the fault of Song's directions as Sol's acting. He's got a great look, and does a really nice job in moments when he is going on his inebriated rampages, or confronting certain individuals in the film.

There are not any other stand out performances, and Sol is on screen a majority of the time, but fans of wrestling might get a kick out of seeing a wrestling appearance by Rick Steiner of The Steiner Brothers fame, and one by Keiji Mutoh, formerly The Great Muta, playing a brief role as Harold Sakata, the man who played Oddjob in Goldfinger!

There are some very nice shots in there from Song and his cinematographer Hyeon-gu Kim, but so much of the direction here is heavy handed and a little sappy. While Rikidozan's relationship with his wife Aya may have been important in reality, the focus on it at times may have you rolling your eyes. It was almost as if Song couldn't decide how important it was as it fades in and out of the story, and sometimes it seemed very awkward and unrealistic. I suppose it can be said that the focus on the marriage could give another human anchor to a man who became a legend, I just think it could have been handled much better. There are some scenes in there outside of the relationship scenes that had me huffing as well, but I suppose this was being made for a broad Japanese audience as a wide-release here would be handled as well.

Ugh, a fucking flowery bike ride? Really?

Another element, one that seemingly led to Rikidozan's early death, that wasn't properly covered in the film, was his developing paranoia due to his drug abuse. It is touched on from time to time by Song, but never presented properly I don't think. One minute he is fine, then the next he thinks someone is trying to kill him when a flower pot falls from a home and almost hits him.

I did really like the set pieces - the older buildings and dirt streets of pre and post-war Japan looked great.

I don't have much more to say about the film as it's the story that is 95% of what it is. If you do not know the story of Rikidozan or you do, this film is definitely worth seeing. I loved learning that Rikidozan's first televised match in Japan was the first Japanese TV broadcast, that Oddjob was the guy that got Riki into wrestling in the first place, Riki's strange ties to the Yakuza... and all of that.

Great stuff despite the flaws. The wrestling scenes are cool to see, but I just wish the dramatic elements weren't as corny at times as they were.

Score: 6.75 / 10

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