The last Korean horse-racing themed picture to come our way was last year’s woeful Kim Tae-hee vehicle Grand Prix, which I savaged in my review a few months ago. 2011 has seen fit to grace us with a new equine melodrama in Champ, which was a little more successful (though not a hit) and features a decent pedigree with a cast comprising Cha Tae-hyun, Yu Oh-seung, Kim Sang-ho, and Baek Yoon-shik (in a brief role). Though I wasn’t expecting much, as the film seemed quite melodramatic and cloying, I was cautiously optimistic that I was sitting down to a decent film. That fanciful notion was torn asunder nearly as quickly as the light of the first frame reached my iris. Dare I say it, Champ might even be worse than Grand Prix, though it is a close photo-finish race for last place.
The conceit of Champ is straightforward, but nonetheless predictable and contrived. Seung-ho (Cha Tae-hyun) is a successful jockey, but after a car accident leaves him injured and a widow, he is unable to work. Things take a turn for the worse when he borrows money from the wrong people and goes on the run with his daughter, ending up on Jeju island at a stable for training mounted police. Horse trainer Yoon is the man who drove the other vehicle in the crash all those years ago. He was driving a horse, who was injured, and its foal, who died. Since then, the damaged horse has been unrideable and now both she and Seung-ho will attempt to make it back to the race track.
Given how filmmakers present them to us, we tend to anthropomorphize animals in films, that is to say we apply human characteristics to them. It’s quite a natural thing to do and, while a little cynical to say so, it functions as a projection of our narcissism. Animals are an effective tool in narratives because aside from the human elements that are imbued into their characteristics, they can almost always be viewed as innocent. Combined, these features are a potent formula for empathy but, sadly, extremely prone to manipulation and sentimentality. They work best in the realm of animation, as you can get away with just about anything when you have ample suspension of disbelief. In live action films however, you take a gamble every time you incorporate an animal who acts like a human, the only exception is talking animals as they, like in animation, suggest a world that we could not possibly live in.
We are led to believe that the horse is mourning the death of its foal, years after the fact, which mirrors the death of Seung-ho’s wife. As unlikely a proposition as that sounds, I could just about swallow it, but shortly thereafter, the horse saved Seung-ho from drowning in a stupefying underwater sequence. Later still, the horse nods in the affirmative at one of its trainer’s questions. Perhaps these elements could have found a place in a broad comedy, but make no mistake, despite a few attempts at lame humour, Champ is a melodrama on steroids.
Despite what seems like a strong cast, the performances in the film leave much to be desired. Aside from on early sequence where Seung-ho and his daughter pretend to be sports announcers as they watch a horse race on TV, Cha Tae-hyun is never given a chance to show off his skills as an energetic, fast-talking comedian, instead he wanders around depressed and puts on a stupid grin every so often. Kim Sang-ho, who really impressed me in this year’s Moby Dick and the K-Drama City Hunter, becomes a nuisance very quickly as he hams it up and throws himself around with his repetitive pratfalls. Oh Yu-seong may not be a top flight actor, but he was a strong presence in films like Beat (1997) and Friend (2001). Here, he is simply miscast; he’s too dry and has no comic timing. Most insufferable of all, just like in Grand Prix, is the little girl who wails throughout most of this lengthy punishment of a film. It’s not cute crying either, her protracted ear-piercing shrieks are so devastating, that they seem to carry through to other scenes.
Add in a few too many sideshows with low-level gangsters, gamblers, rival jockeys, mounted police, and corrupt businessman as well as the cringe-inducing impromptu dancing and all of the above and you’re left with a 133-minute exercise in endurance that I strongly suggest you stay well away from. Aside from the underwater rescue sequence and a handful of other brief ludicrously bad moments, Champ doesn’t even fit into the so-bad-it’s-good category. It’s just dull and annoying.
Frankly, what was I expecting? Unlike other sports such as boxing and baseball, horse-racing has not really had an illustrious history of representation on screen. In recent memory there was 2003’s Oscar-bait against-the-odds based-on-a-true-story Seabiscuit
(2003),which almost made me want to throw myself under a galloping horse. Last year, Disney tried a similar gambit with Secretariat
(2010), which, though I had an opportunity to see it before release, I couldn’t bring myself to sit through. The best films featuring the racetrack typically focus away from the action happening on it like the anarchic brilliance of the Marx Brothers classic A Day at the Races
(1937) or Kubrick’s dark early caper The Killing
(1956). While of late, Korea may have blighted the relatively small crop of horse-racing films on offer, US premium cable channel HBO may have found an answer in Luck
, a racetrack drama with a myriad of characters from Deadwood
creator David Milch which began to air in January.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.