"Rikidozan" (Yokdosan), the biopic narrativizing the life of the legendary Korean-Japanese wrestler of the same name, debuts on Dec. 15, 41 years to the day since the heroic figure passed away.
Moviebuffs' and fan's attention was being drawn to what image would be presented by actor Sul Kyung-gu, a man who has starred in a number of high-profile hits, from "Peppermint Candy" and "Oasis" to "Public Enemy" and "Silmido," reinventing himself almost effortlessly to earn distinction as one of Korea's most talented actors.
In a preview of the film aired during the Pusan International Film Festival, however, Sul reconfirmed the image of the great wrestler, brimming with arrogance and tension - and the charisma that few stars apart from Sul could muster. With many people awaiting the film's general release, he has excited the public imagination regarding what celluloid thrills lie in store.
The movie opens with a scene of Rikidozan singing on a nightclub stage on Dec. 8, 1963. The actor immediately reveals how the big man's arrogance and insecurity, egotism and sensitivity co-exist by the mixed expressions on his face - a true acting coup de grace.
When Rikidozan leaves the stage, the announcer discovers that the microphone he had given the wrestler was covered in blood. The hero has been stabbed with a knife. The film then goes back to 1950 and begins to chronicle Rikidozan's life from the discrimination he suffered at the hands of his fellow wrestlers for being Korean to the mendacity he was forced to resort to in gaining the attention of patron Kanno Takeo (Fuji Tatsuya, from "In the Realm of the Senses"). Also chronicled is his falling in love with, and marriage to, saloon house shamisen player Aya (Nakatani Miki), the failure that emanates from his losing battle to control his temperament (think, "Raging Bull") and his rise to become the greatest professional wrestler in Japan following his return from the United States.
During his interview, Sul frowned several times as he reminisced about the last couple of months. It seemed the memories of the physical and spiritual abuse he endured during the course of making the movie automatically caused him to shudder.
One difficulty he mentioned was crossing a new physical threshold in piling on the pounds for the role. He had to gain 25 kilograms, but his contract demanded that the added mass include a certain amount of muscle.
"I'd never done such difficult work with my muscles. If you eat diligently, you gain weight, but when I started exercising to build muscle, I actually lost weight. After managing to build myself up, I had to eat whenever I could to maintain my weight mass as I was dropping pounds rapidly because of the grueling film schedule and the wrestling scenes," he said.
Learning Japanese was also tough.
"You think I was just busy on the film set? I was even busier in my room," he joked. With no time to relax, he spent his days taping and memorizing his Japanese lines and practicing Japanese "enka," a form of popular music done in a traditional Japanese style.
While doing this, he spent a month with actress Nakatani Miki, who starred opposite Sul. The two followed each other around so persistently that they admitted to growing weary of one another. In the end, Sul pulled off his Japanese lines in a first-rate manner.
Filming took three months. Expressing one of the lows of the experience, Sul said there was a period in which they shot for 12 straight days and nights.
"Having no confidence that I had succeeded in making the film properly, I also spent a year trying to avoid director Song Hae-sung. The final product came out well, however -- so much so that during a recent preview, I wondered how we were able to pull it off. I feel the level of achievement is equal to the difficulties I experienced in making the film," he said.