Jang Eun-sil Report – Physical: 100 Episode #1

One of the biggest lessons about writing that I have practically no use for came from a book entitled Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko. Highly recommended anyway, I noticed that each chapter in this larger account of police militarization in America chose a perspective – a main character. It wasn’t just “here are the facts,” it was “here are how the facts impacted this guy.” Framing history with subjectivity is what I tried to do with the feature about Mulan and more recently on Collider about a lost film, identifying H. R. Giger as the protagonist of that story. Clearly, I haven’t got it down, but that’s why I write opinion pieces, not history. And if you’ll indulge further meta, I had no idea how I was gonna approach writing about Physical: 100, so I’ve chosen Jang Eun-sil as the protagonist because it’s simply the most honest choice.

This will be part one of an episodic recap of the Netflix reality competition, entitled “Jang Eun-sil Report” because as soon as she smashes her torso, I’m not watching this show anymore. One hundred athletes, bodybuilders, soldiers, and other super-fit people enter a massive set arrayed by busts of their own torsos, and they compete in physical challenges for a cash prize. Who’s the strongest in Korea? Upon elimination, they’re given a hammer to smash the bust. We may be reminded of a certain South Korean battle royale series, but the more immediate comparison is the American show The Challenge, down to the black outfits, though this also gives us the sharpest cultural contrast.

Now, The Challenge is on MTV, and based on the seasons I have watched, it plucked contestants from other reality shows. In addition to physical challenges, of the Fear Factor derring-do variety and the more Survivor-style “do a weird, big puzzle,” the strategy required was pitched for dramatic conflict. These are all egotistical Americans who want to win, so when they’re forced to choose a new partner or who to eliminate, you’re gonna have a lot of those “candid” scenes of whispered, side-eyed discussion. “I’m looking to knock this bitch out of the game,” and so forth.

While I’ve heard that Asian reality shows are different from American, whether Terrace House being like a more realistic Real World – or perhaps, what The Real World initially was – or Da-hee’s Single’s Inferno being a positively Asian-filled alternative to The Bachelor, I never experienced this for myself until Physical: 100. The show starts off inside a massive, circular room, where our first of one hundred contestants enters and looks around for his torso. Then the next guy comes in, and the funniest thing happens. These muscular, bulky dudes, who seem to swagger when they walk because it’s the most natural motion afforded by the body, suddenly reach out softly for the polite greeting. “You have a great body,” one says. “Oh, not at all!” says the other.

However, I’d be more than willing to posit that Physical: 100 is a new kind of even Asian reality show, which is the post-Squid Game competition. When that first guy comes in, there is no exterior, establishing shot. We’re trapped in this series of mysterious arenas with a disembodied host doing his best Lee Byung-hun. And like Squid Game, which was upfront about gender, Physical: 100 is egalitarian. Khang Mi is a special forces soldier, there are female bodybuilders, two absolutely vicious female boxers, and one curious cheerleader. When she walks in, 24 and K-pop pretty, some of the guys gawk, but one dude leans into another and remarks that cheerleaders have to be fit to do somersaults and fly in the air.

We even have a token white dude, a token Black dude, and surprise celebrities, like YouTubers and Choo Sung-hoon, the MMA star who had everyone in the torso room talking. The guy who did the zombie choreography for Kingdom comes in. An 18-year-old taekwondo kid – and if you’re wondering why I’m just listing everyone I can remember, it’s because there isn’t a point in this first, nearly hour-long episode where they go, “and the rest of them also showed up.” No. We’re there for what feels like all one hundred. And it may be that gentler, Asian approach to reality storytelling, that everyone’s important, but it was woefully boring.

The problem is that the American style of conflict was a guarantor of narrative. It’s super cute to see all these tough people respectfully size each other up, but when they go head-to-head, who am I rooting for? What’s at stake? We’ve always said that reality shows aren’t truly reality, and there’s a good reason for that. Physical: 100 takes a distant, objective perspective, which leaves me in the lurch in another profound way. The third woman to enter is Jang Eun-sil, and she introduces herself as a wrestler of 17 years who joined to show off her physical abilities. She looks at her torso and says, “My tummy. It came out nice.” One of the special forces guys says, “You came prepared to beat everyone up.”

By sheer luck, and a particularly knowing algorithm, I happened upon this post on Instagram:

In a matter of seconds, she took my breath away, and immediately, I wanted to know everything about her that I could. A precious few of her matches can be found on YouTube, including this one, where she’s victorious, and one can appreciate how aggressive she can be. I have to think that a wrestler is well-rounded, though maybe not as much as special forces soldiers. Bodybuilders won’t be able to handle their own weight, and the slim gymnasts won’t hold up in a fight. Of course, Jang also benefits from being one of the show’s stars, insofar as she’s featured on this piece of promotional art:

To the show’s objectivity, I’m downright studying every time she’s on screen. Are they trying to set her up as a main character with these reaction shots, or is it just that she’s the only person I recognize? And thus, I find myself in an uncomfortable position. I don’t like competition in general. Park Chan-wook and 2022’s best film, RRR, were shut out of the Oscars, and I took that personally. I really want Jang to win, even after seeing the other 99 contestants, and I’m already steeling myself against the eventuality that she doesn’t. I know that sounds like I’ve given up on her, but I don’t have the best track record.

The first challenge is actually a pre-challenge, to gain an advantage in the first game. The one hundred are divided in half, and each fifty gathers on a big platform with a grid of numbers. Then another grid, this one made of metal, descends from the ceiling. They grab on and it ascends as the platform splits open, revealing a pool of water. Jang yells out, but she looks really confident, and one of the positions she tries allows a good flex. People start dropping into the water with a satisfying splash of defeat, and already I’m tense. “Hang on, please.” Of course, it’s the bulky guys who fall first, including a guy who’s as wide as he is tall, and refers to himself as “the strongest man in Korea.”

It’s this kind of test that checks his ego a little bit – which is actually quite poignant – and it’s this kind of show that challenges “strength” and therefore physical power as being necessarily linear. To again invoke the show’s egalitarianism, “the more muscle you have, the stronger you are” has been a thorn in my side for decades. Not because I don’t have muscles – which I don’t – but because women “don’t have muscles.” Sure, if a man and a woman followed the same bodybuilding regimen for however many months, the man would end up being bigger. But as we’ve already seen, that doesn’t help in every situation. What is the definition of strength? Hanging from a bar? Maybe!

The fitness model @ClaireMax (maximumclaire on Instagram) tweeted a thread earlier this month in response to men who use biological difference to claim gender supremacy:

“The funny thing about the guys in my comments saying they could take me in a fight because I’m a weak female woman don’t realize that a) there are two kinds of fights: sport and survival, and b) neither of those is typically decided by strength. In a sport fight, speed, technique, and endurance are way more important than physical strength. And there are rules for a reason. In a survival fight, I’m going to kick you as hard as I can in the balls and claw your eyes out with my perfectly manicured nails.”

She goes on to note that there are martial arts styles designed for taking down larger opponents, like jujitsu and aikido.

All of this is going through my head as I’m watching Jang change positions on the bars. She’s doing well for a while, and then she lets out a scream, says, “Shit,” and drops. For the first group, she came in 28th place out of 50. “It’s humiliating,” she says in the talking head interview segment. The losers are quickly herded to the edges of the pool, where they watch the endurance contest that lasts for more than 15 minutes. With these straining faces and people talking about sore armpits, it’s the kind of pain that everyone can probably relate to. Even if we haven’t hung from a pull-up bar, we’ve all gotten weary trying to lift and carry heavy objects.

The wrestling videos were no indication of Jang’s personality, and we find that she isn’t shy about cheering and being loud, calling up to the survivors still hanging on. She’s especially encouraging to her fellow wrestlers. In the end, it’s between a soldier and a gymnast, both male, and the episode ends before we know who wins the contest. Let’s not say that pacing is one of the show’s strengths, though with the coming episode two, we may begin to see character dynamics taking shape – and an unfortunate lack of Jang Eun-sil altogether. The show returns to Netflix at the end of the month, but I hope to have the second episode’s recap up before then. That’s when shit gets rough.

For more coverage
Physical: 100 Episode #1
Physical: 100 Episode #2
Physical: 100 Episode #3
Physical: 100 Episode #4
Physical: 100 Episode #5
Physical: 100 Episode #6
Physical: 100 Episode #7
Physical: 100 – Final Report


2 thoughts on “Jang Eun-sil Report – Physical: 100 Episode #1

  1. Can’t friggin’ beLIEVE RRR got no nominations…though apparently the director never submitted it for any aside from song.


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