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It’s Premier Asia time again here at DVDAnswers, and this week they’re offering up KT Kwak's boxing biopic Champion. Based on the true story Kim Deuk-gu, the film tells the tale of a young Korean boxer whose heroic achievements inspired an entire nation and changed the sport forever. Each of Premier Asia’s previous releases left this reviewer suitably impressed, but as someone who’s never really understood the appeal of boxing I was slightly sceptical about sitting down to watch what—for all I knew—could have been the Korean answer to Rocky

Champion: Special Collector's Edition
Film
Champion tells the story of Kim Deuk-gu, a penniless youth from the streets of Seoul who grew up with dreams of becoming a world-class fighter. Through grim determination and years of intensive training under his dedicated coach Kim Hyun-chi, Kim eventually attained success in the Asia-Pacific Boxing Championships. But it was his fateful encounter with World Boxing Champion Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas in 1982 that would forever be remembered. As his devoted fiancée Lee Kyung-mi awaited his return from America, Kim Deuk-gu took on Mancini in a titanic battle that would change the very nature of boxing. Underdog Kim astounded everyone as he battled Mancini for fourteen bruising rounds, before fate dealt him a terrible hand...

Video
Champion is presented in its original ratio of 2.35:1 complete with anamorphic enhancement, and is perhaps the most impressive transfer I’ve yet seen from Premier Asia. The film itself is shot in such a way as to give many a bigger budget movie a run for their money, and the image is exceptionally clean, presenting a fine level of detail with virtually no film or digital artefacts (such as excessive grain or edge enhancement). Black levels are consistently good throughout, with particularly noteworthy shadow delineation, and colour rendition is also excellent. It’s worth noting that the film does feature an intentionally bleached palette at times, but this is an intentional effect reminiscent of the way in which Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic was presented (although it’s use is not as severe). All in all this is a very impressive effort by Premier Asia.

Champion: Special Collector's Edition
Audio
Premier Asia presents Champion with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS ES 6.1 soundtracks. There’s not an awful lot between the two, but I concentrated on the DTS track for review purposes. The disc also offers an English Dolby 5.1 dub, but why anyone would want to listen to that is beyond me…

The track itself is surprisingly active for a film of this nature, even during the quieter moments. Although a very front-orientated mix, what little use of the surrounds there is happens to be used to great effect. Whether it’s the more aggressive usage during the bruising encounters in the ring, or the subtle ambient effects such as passing traffic, it all helps to set the mood. I was particularly happy with the use of the LFE channel, which gets a nice workout as it slams home every bone-jarring punch with ornament-shaking ferocity. Thankfully dialogue remains clear throughout the entirety of the proceedings. All in all this is a well-balanced, if low-key mix that delivers the goods when it counts.

Extras
It wouldn’t be a Premier Asia release without a Bey Logan commentary, and he’s back with partner in crime Mike Leeder to bring us yet another great track that strikes a good balance between the factual and the anecdotal. Bey goes into Bruce Lee reference overdrive for this track, finding references where perhaps none exist, but it’s hard to deny the accuracy of at least one or two of his observations. Although he drives the commentary, Logan has to defer to Leeder’s superior knowledge of Korean cinema, and it’s Mike who provides most of the factual and insider information (such as an in-joke reference to the director’s previous film Friend during a scene that takes place in a church). Overall I wouldn’t say this is the best commentary the pair have ever done, but it’s still head and shoulders above most efforts.

Disc one also includes the customary trailers for other Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia titles. Included are trailers and info for Bullet in the Head, Moon Warriors, Naked Weapon, Iron Monkey, The Grudge, Volcano High, Bang Rajan, Bichunmoo[/i] and The Warrior. There’s also information only on Ichi the Killer and the forthcoming titles Full Contact and Heart of the Dragon.

Champion: Special Collector's Edition
First up on disc two we have the Interview Gallery. There are three interviews in this section, the first of which is entitled Love Conquers All and features attractive twenty three year old leading-lady, Chae Min-seo. Speaking in Korean, she talks about her upbringing and how she came to be cast in Champion (her first feature film). Chae also discusses her conversations with Kim’s widow, Lee Kyung-mi, and the impact this had on her performance. Obviously the death of her husband is still a painful memory, and this explains her opposition to the film and her non-attendance of the premier. The interview runs for a little over twelve minutes in total, and there’s plenty of information to take in during this time (and taking in the beautiful Chae Min-seo isn’t a particularly difficult task either).

Next up we have Rolling with the Punches, an interview with action-director Jung Doo-hung (spelled Jung Doo-hong everywhere else on the disc and in the subtitles) that lasts for almost thirty minutes. He discusses his earliest childhood memories of wanting to escape his small village and learn martial arts, his beginnings as a stuntman, and his hopes and dreams for the future. There’s also discussion about his specific involvement with both The Warrior and Champion, as well as an overview of Yoo Oh-seong’s training regimen and admiration of his acting talent. While a lot of this makes for very interesting viewing, Jung often repeats himself and my attention wavered around the half way mark. While it’s nice to have a number of quality items on DVD, I think producers can sometime be guilty of including irrelevant stuff to pad out the running time in order to offer greater perceived value.

Ringside Raconteur is the last interview in this section, and features former Guardian boxing correspondent Jack Massarik. The interview runs for a little over seventeen minutes, in which time Massarik touches on the astounding number of fighters who have lost their lives to the sport (somewhere in the region of seven hundred and fifty). While the majority of the interview concentrates on the Kim-Mancini fight and how it brought about changes in the sport, Massarik also touches on similar tragedies (such as Michael Watson). As someone unfamiliar with boxing, I found this interview particularly interesting from a historical point of view.

Champion: Special Collector's Edition
Going the Distance: The Making of Champion is the longest featurette on the disc, clocking in at an impressive forty-seven minutes. However, this impressive running time disguises the fact that it’s little more than a promotional documentary that offers little real insight. One of the biggest problems with the piece is the quality of the audio, the standard of which is extremely poor compared to the rest of the disc, making it rather hard to make out the narration at times. Along with the behind the scenes material, there’s plenty of footage from the film, but I’d have liked to see more in-depth interviews with cast and crew, and a greater exploration of Kim Deuk-gu himself. Although watchable, this is yet another feature that runs on too long and repeats far too much of what is available elsewhere.

Taking up the Challenge is a short (sub six minute) piece that features director KT Kwak talking about the themes running through his films, the story behind casting Yoo Oh-seong and his expectations for Champion. There’s a little behind the scenes footage thrown in for good measure, before we move on to a few words from Yoo Oh-seong himself. Yoo comes across as a pretty down to Earth, modest guy; one who is full of praise for his director.

Making the Grade: In Training with Yoo Oh-seong runs for a little under three minutes and basically just features video footage of the star punishing himself while getting into shape for the movie. There can be no doubting this guy’s dedication to his craft!

The Promotional Archive is where you’ll find all the standard things like Trailers and a TV Spot, but unusually there’s also includes a Music Video. Trailer-wise we get the original teaser, theatrical, and UK promotional efforts, while the solitary TV spot runs for a mere twenty-four seconds. The music video is a little better, clocking in at a little over five minutes and featuring plenty of clips from the film set to some inoffensive Korean ballad. Personally I though it was a lot better with the subtitles turned off…

The Information Library is a repository for the text-based material, and it’s here that you’ll find Film-Notes and Biographies. The film-notes are actually pretty informative considering they only last for a few pages, while the biographies provide plenty of useful information on the unfamiliar (at least to UK audiences) actors.

Champion: Special Collector's Edition
Overall
Champion is easily one of the best films Contender’s Premier Asia label has yet released in the UK. Movies such as Volcano High and Bichunmoo have higher profiles, but Champion is better acted and far more coherent than either of these films. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that only The Warrior and perhaps Ichi the Killer have impressed me as much. Although the film is definitely not without its shortcomings—the lack of any real exploration into the underlying reasons behind Kim’s tragic death, and the sudden, often confusing jump cuts for example—it is a stylish and entertaining film that showcases the career of a man who paid the ultimate price for his desire to be the best. But as is mentioned several times throughout the DVD set, the filmmaker saw little point in telling a story already so familiar to Koreans. This explains the somewhat confusing time shifts, but it would have been nice to have a little more information on Kim’s career for those of us unfamiliar with his story. If you can get past these limitations and accept the film for what it is—an unashamedly subjective look at the life of Kim Deuk-gu—I’m sure that you’ll find the film as entertaining and, at times, moving as I did.

As to the standard of audio-visual presentation, this is once again superb: the transfer really does look the part, and while not as aggressive as one might expect, the soundtrack delivers just the right blend of intensity and subtlety. The supplemental features offer a valuable insight into the filmmaking process, and as always I particularly enjoyed the Logan-Leeder commentary. However, I also found the interviews and the behind the scenes segments interesting viewing, which isn’t always the case. So, whether you’re looking to explore the world of Korean cinema, or even if you just want to see a well-acted biopic about a courageous, but ultimately tragic figure, I have no hesitation in recommending Champion.


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