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Life of Korean Wrestler in Japan Brought to Film

2004/12/07 Source

By Shim Sun-ah
Yonhap News Agency
A South Korean film brought back to life a legendary Korean-born Japanese professional wrestler 41 years after his death.

Yokdosan, better known in Japan as Rikidozan, was a national hero to Japanese who were in despair after Japan's defeat to the United States in World War II. He gave hope to the Japanese by throwing Americans in the wrestling ring.

But few Japanese people knew that their national hero was actually Korean, because he kept his origin a secret for his entire career, even from close associates.

Born as Kim Shin-rak in 1924, the wrestler came from a small town in South Hamgyong Province, which today belongs to North Korea. He came to Japan at age 17, along with his parents.

Because of his origins, he endured harsh discrimination from Japanese people when he was younger. He had always wanted to become a "yokozuna", or grand champion, in the sumo world. Knowing that only native Japanese could attain the top honor, he left the world of sumo to become a professional wrestler.

The life of the Korean-Japanese hero was a good subject for a Korea-Japan co-production. The film, "Yokdosan (Rikidozan)", has already attracted attention in South Korea for what in this country is a blockbuster-level budget of 11 billion won (about $10.5 million) and for its cast, which includes Korean actor Sol Kyung-gu and several top Japanese actors.

Japanese actress Miki Nakatani played the geisha Aya, who falls in love with Rikidozan (played by Sul) and later becomes his wife. Nakatani, who has been in such Japanese films as "Ring", "Spiral" and "Keizoku", is known as one of Japan's top five actresses.

The 28-year-old actress, who combines innocence with intelligence, introduced herself as a big fan of Korean films. She even spent a year learning the Korean language.

Yonhap News Agency spoke with her at the Yongsan CGV movie theater in Seoul.

Q: How many times did you visit Korea, and what are your impressions of it?

A: This is my fifth visit. My first visit was for about a week to learn Korean. Without knowing anybody at the time, I had to eat and drink alone. I now feel comfortable because I have come to have more acquaintances each time I visited Korea.

Q: You are reportedly a big fan of Korean movies. How many did you see, and why do you like them?

A: I saw many, including director Im Kwon-taek's "Seopyeonje", Lee Chang-dong's "Pakhasatang (Peppermint Candy)", Park Chan-wook's "Old Boy" and Kwak Gyeong-taek's "Chingu ("Friend")". I like them because of the good performance by the actors and stylish scenes. I think Korean movie crews are talented.

Q: Why did you decide to star in "Rikidozan"?

A: I first heard about the film during last year's Pusan International Film Festival. I was in South Korea for "Hotel

Venus" (a Korean-language film from Japan released in 2004) at that time. So I visited the Korean producers of "Rikidozan" to

convey my will to act in the film.

Q: Have you heard of Rikidozan before then?

A: Almost nothing. So I read some books about him, including ones written by his wife and son, to study who he was.

Q: What do you think this movie is about?

A: It's about a low-life man who manages to hike up to the top of Mt. Everest from the bottom on his own, but eventually falls to the bottom again. A man who is ambitious and wants to be recognized on the one hand and is sensitive on the other.

Q: Did you enjoy acting in the film?

A: To tell the truth, I had hard time adapting to Korean food, multinational staff members and a different manner of filming (from that in Japan). Realizing that other crewmembers endured more hardships than me, I made up my mind to do my best to the last.

Q: What do you think is the significance of Korean-Japanese joint filmmaking, and will such exchanges continue?

A: People say the two countries are geographically close but mentally distant from each other. I think the Korean and Japanese staff got closer in the process of working together for a common goal. I hope viewers in both countries will feel the same after watching this film.

Q: Do you think "Rikidozan" will appeal to Japanese audience?

A: I don't know how Japan's younger generation, the top movie consumer group, will take it. Its success may depend on how it is publicized, I mean, whether the focus of the publicity campaign is on a film about a professional wrestler, a co-product of Korea and Japan or a love story.

Q: Do you think the "Hallyu" (popularity of South Korean movies, TV shows and music, called the "Korean Wave") will last long?

A: Actually, the Korean Wave is different from the way I like Korea. The Japanese love Korean actors mostly for their nice dress and handsome appearance. But I hope actors with excellent acting ability like Sol Kyung-gu will be more popular in Japan in the future.

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