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A new Japanese-South Korean joint film about professional wrestler Rikidozan celebrates his short, tragic life.

Rikidozan, known as Yokdosan in Korean, was a national hero in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s. But few Japanese knew at the time that he was an immigrant from the Korean Penisula because the wrestler kept his ethnic origin secret.

Forty-one years ago, at the height of his fame, Rikidozan was fatally stabbed in a brawl at a Tokyo nightclub.

In the movie, “Yokdosan,” the star says as he looks out a hospital window, “I really want to lead a life with a smile on my face.”

The quote is poignant because the frustrations and adversity Rikidozan experienced made it difficult for him to wear a smile, despite being second only to the emperor in fame, as some had claimed.

Rikidozan was known among many South Korean professional wrestling fans as the mentor of South Korean wrestler Kim Il, who went by the Japanese name of Kintaro Oki.

“Yokdosan” was released in South Korea on Dec. 15, the 41st anniversary of the wrestler’s death. The 137-minute movie is slated to open in Japan in June.

Rikidozan’s Korean name was Kim Shin Rak. His Japanese name was Mitsuhiro Momota.

He gave excitement and joy to many Japanese, who at the time were downcast over their defeat in World War II, with his trademark “leg locks” and “karate chops.”

He was born in 1923 in a small village in South Hamkyong Province of what is now North Korea, When he was 17, he moved to Japan and joined a sumo stable in the hope of becoming a champion.

But despite his desperate efforts to become a yokozuna in the traditional Japanese sport, he was barred from competing for the championship because he was Korean. He then decided to become a professional wrestler.

In the wrestling world his peers again treated him harshly for his ethnic origin. In one scene in the movie, he is beaten by a senior, who says, “What I hate most is to see a smiling Korean.”

Rikidozan is portrayed in the movie as a man who pursued his ambition through all means available.

In another scene, after being told by his friend to reveal his ethnicity, he says: “I am just Yokdosan. I don’t know Korea, or Japan either. I am a man of the world.”

South Korean actor Sul Kyung Gu plays Rikidozan and Japanese actress Miki Nakatani plays his wife. Japanese actor Tatsuya Fuji has the role of Rikidozan’s patron.

About 97 percent of the dialogue in the film is in Japanese. Sul, who doesn’t speak Japanese, said he tape-recorded a Japanese news announcer’s reading of his lines and memorized them. He gained about 28 kg to look more like Rikidozan and played the wrestling scenes himself.

On the movie’s Web site, Koh Min Hee, a viewer, said, “I was able to see in the movie the inner turmoil of the wrestling legend, the frustrations and difficulties he faced, instead of the successful stories.”

Another viewer, Lee Seung Hyuck, said: “The movie ‘Yokdosan’ bared both good and bad points about his character through the camera lens. To make a long story short, Yokdosan is a twisted hero who I can’t hate.”

The movie Web site is www.rikidozan.co.kr.

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