August 31, 2014

Lifting King Kong: Feel-Good Girl Power in Spandex

I was ready to yawn, to gag, to roll my eyes, to multitask on my iPhone, to vacuum, to fall asleep and upon waking again to basically loathe Lifting King Kong. You see, this feel-good sports pic has such emotive acting and such an obvious narrative arc that I was sure I was going to be bored (i.e., feel bad) despite the movie's best intentions. Well girlfriend! I was wrong. Here's how the movie defeated the skeptical me. (Why do I keep thinking I won't like movies about athletes when I so often do?!)

The first surprise is that Lifting King Kong focuses on a sport that's rarely the center of a movie: Weightlifting. The sport is one in which individual athletes compete against their own best efforts instead of other teams. So while there's a ragtag group at the center of Lifting King Kong, there's not a team in the conventional sense. The second surprise is that Lifting King Kong not only spotlights an atypical sport but it also features the women who practice it. No. Not women. Teen girls. Outcasts who take up the sport because they've got no families, no futures, no friends. You could subtitle this movie "From Pity Party to Pumping Iron." The third surprise is that the fat girl (Lee Hyeon-kyeong) who poops on herself actually gets the cute boy (Ahn Yong-joo).

So 40 minutes in, I went from sneering to cheering as the various budding athletes -- orphan/Olympian-to-be Young-ja (Jo An) among them, progressed from junior high chumps to high school champs. That their devoted coach (Lee Beom-su) is a seriously injured former bronze medalist who appears to be wearing a fat suit for part of the movie as a way to bond with his mentees only allows you to tear up more as the girls develop muscles as well as self-respect and inner strength. The acting doesn't get any better mind you but this one will trigger the waterworks nonetheless. Kleenex required, for sure.

And before you write the movie off as preposterous, you should know that Lifting King Kong is based on a true story that's also pretty dramatic. In reality, Jeong In-yeong -- SPOILER ALERT! who also died of a heart attack -- coached a girls weightlifting team to a record number of medals and went on to also discover the flyweight Olympic Medalist Jeon Byeong-gwan who won a Silver in Seoul and a Gold in Barcelona. I can see why writer-director Park Geon-yong and his writing collaborators Jeong Ik-hwan and Bae Se-yeong decided to combine all the stories into one. The truth is always a bit messy.

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