A dejected office worker seeks release from a mundane life of constant degradation as a masked wrestler but finds himself ultimately unable to escape the headlock of the corporate society in Kim Jee-woon’s pro wrestling farce The Foul King (반칙왕, Banchikwang). As the title may suggest, you might have to play a little dirty in order to claw back some dignity but then perhaps everyone’s struggling to free themselves from something be it old debts, middle-aged disappointment, or complicity with the dubious business practices of turn of the century capitalism.
Even before he enters the ring, Dae-ho (Song Kang-ho) is wrestling, fighting his way onto and out of a packed rush hour train only to arrive at work a few minutes late to be given a passive aggressive dressing down from his boss (Song Young-chang) during the morning pep talk. His boss then in absurd fashion corners him in the gents and places him in a headlock while telling him off some more just to ram the message home. Poor Dae-ho finds this so humiliating that all he really thinks of is a short term solution of learning how to evade his boss’ control while mooning over his attractive desk mate Miss Jo and further berating himself for being too shy to ask her out. His other problem is that he’s not very good at his job as a low-level bank cashier. He and his work friend Doo-sik (Jung Woong-in) are bottom in the office rankings for failing to secure any new accounts.
Trapped between his abusive boss and dismissive father (Shin Goo) with whom he still lives, Dae-ho finds himself both emasculated and infantilised while continuing to indulge childhood fantasies drifting off into a dream sequence in which he is Elvis in the wrestling ring trying to impress Miss Jo but still defeated by his giant bug of a boss. He first turns to a friend who teaches Taekwondo to children but he tells him Taekwondo is a “mental discipline” while a real martial artist would never end up in a headlock anyway. But then as if by magic he wanders past a moribund wrestling gym and ventures inside only for the coach, Jang (Jang Jin-young), to throw him out for being a bit odd. Threatened by a gangster into training up a comic relief character specialising in cheating to bolster the profile of another wrestler, Yubiho (Kim Su-ro), hoping to drum up publicity for a Japan tour, Jang relents remembering Dae-ho’s manic rank about his love for classic heel Ultra Tiger Mask as seen on TV decades earlier.
Being a heel is not quite what Dae-ho had in mind, after all what he wants is to figure out how to escape a headlock yet he finds himself bizarrely in his element if a little clumsily rejoicing in moustache twirling villainy, cartoonish pranks, and comic pratfalls. He begins to grow in confidence but also overreaches, managing to teach a gang of youths (amusingly standing under a huge mural ironically reading “Korea! Fighting!”) a lesson and redeeming his sense of masculine pride after a defeat while making a total drunken fool of himself in his unrequited love for Miss Jo at the office karaoke party once again getting pummelled by his boss. While Dae-ho turns to wrestling in search of freedom and personal fulfilment, Doo-sik tries to regain his self-respect by doing the right thing refusing to be a part of his boss’ obviously dodgy business practices while threatening to blow the whistle if like Dae-ho perhaps realising that there is no way to beat this system while remaining inside it.
Dae-ho discovers that he gains confidence by putting on a mask, specially the Ultra Tiger Mask worn by his childhood hero, while “winning” in the ring through “cheating” getting audience laughs with zany cartoon stunts. Only when the mask is torn by an unnecessarily aggressive Yubiho does he enter full on rage mode attempting to take revenge for his constant belittlement by ignoring the script to teach Yubiho a lesson as the pair of them brawl all over the stadium making weapons of random chairs and even at one point the session bell itself. Yet in a real sense Dae-ho never really achieves much of anything, scoring a symbolic victory in provoking a tie but never figuring out how to escape the corporate headlock while continuing to be bullied by his boss, rendered entirely powerless within the hierarchal corporatised society of early 2000s Korea. A darkly comic take on existential futility, Foul King meditates on the compromises inherent in playing the game Dae-ho ironically finding confidence in wilful humiliation as a dishonourable heel while unable to escape his constant degradation wrestling for agency within the confines of his regular office worker life.
The Foul King streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.
Trailer (English subtitles)