Friday, April 10, 2015

Korean Movie Night: King of Jokgu

It is one of the few government programs that worked as intended. The game of Jokgu was devised by the ROK military to promote physical fitness. Korean enlisted men immediately took to the soccer-volleyball hybrid and it also caught on with civilians. However, the snobbish remain disdainful of its roughneck roots. At least, that seems to be the case on the college campus where the recently discharged Hong Man-seob has re-enrolled. However, the older underclassmen is not about to give up on the game he was born to play in Woo Moon-gi’s King of Jokgu (trailer here), which screens this coming Tuesday as part of the free Korean Movie Night series at New York’s Asia Society.

Sergeant Hong was the best Jokgu player on his base, by a country mile. He is actually sort of sorry to leave the Jokgu court that was like a second home to him. However, he is eager to return to the School of Food and Nutrition, in the hope that he will meet his future wife there. He sure thinks he has found her when he lays eyes on An-na. She often has that effect on guys, but Hong has more stick-to-itiveness than most. Inconveniently, An-na is still hung up on Kang Min, a former member of the national soccer team, but when an injury ended his playing career, he basically gave up on himself.

Initially, An-na starts seeing Hong to spur some jealousy in Kang Min, but she has to admit the big lug is a heck of a nice guy. She even starts to enjoy hanging with his oddball friends. Together, they join Hong’s campaign to rebuild the campus Jokgu court. However, An-na will have to decide who she will root for when Hong’s team faces Kang Min’s squad in the university’s re-established Jokgu tournament.

Yes, King is desperately trying to be a crowd pleasing romantic comedy, but it succeeds. It is endearingly bittersweet and surprisingly restrained when it comes to the slapsticky shtick. It starts with Hong Man-seob, who is not merely another stereotypical gentle giant. The man has integrity and he will even stand-up to An-na from time to time. Ahn Jae-hong plays him just right: slightly goofy, but wearing his heart on his sleeve. He shares some delicately ambiguous chemistry with Hwang Seung-eon’s An-na, who also pleasantly exceeds and subverts our expectations.

Okay, maybe Kang Bong-seong and Hwang Mi-yeong can be a little embarrassing as Hong’s goony teammates, but the film is bolstered by several strong yet subtle key supporting turns. Lee Se-rang gives the film real heft as Hong’s off campus steakhouse employer and Park Ho-san nicely portrays the evolution of Hong’s initially judgmental roommate Hyeong-gook.

King has been programmed as part of a focus on emerging young Korean directors, with good reason. Woo exhibits a surefooted sense when to ease up on the physical humor and when to double down on the well-earned emotional payoff. As a result, it is impossible to dislike this film. Seriously, it can’t be done. Highly recommended, King of Jokgu screens (for free) this coming Tuesday (4/14) at the Asia Society in New York.