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Physical: 100 is a visually spectacular but bulky strength competition

Physical: 100 is a visually spectacular but bulky strength competition
Netflix's South Korean reality competition Physical 100 question pits 100 players in feats of strength, such as in the first quest, where players fight for a ball.

“Fight to the death. Survive to the end.” Those words appear on the trailer for a new Netflix reality competition, in which an unnamed and unseen man tells 100 players from South Korea, “You’ll compete to survive purely with your physical strength.”

This is, alas, not Netflix’s forthcoming Squid Game reality competition, because no one is really dying. Instead, it comes from of Physical: 100, a Korean competition show that premiered today with its first two episodes.

“To study the most perfect physique, regardless of gender, age, and race, we invited you all here. We have prepared five quests to find the most perfect physique,” the disembodied voice says, revealing that “the final physique standing” wins 300 million, which is about US$250,000.

For these feats of strength, the production has assembled massive soundstage arenas and built impressive apparatuses to host these so-far simple competitions. But having 100 contestants makes the show less agile in these first two episodes, and illustrates the challenges Squid Game’s reality competition faces.

An overhead view of a fountain in the middle of concentric circles of plaster busts that people stand behind
Physical: 100’s players begin standing behind plaster casts of their torsos

Among Physical: 100’s one hundred players are athletes, actors, gymnasts, dancers, cheerleaders, weightlifters, ex-military, YouTubers, and influencers. Many are well-known in Korea, and around the world; some of them know each other.

They enter a massive space where plaster casts of their torsos sit on marble pedestals, arranged in concentric circles around a fountain. They walk around, admiring each other’s plaster bodies and actual bodies, gleefully objectifying and judging each other.

I started watching with English dubbing, and the actors’ inflection made most of cast’s comments and interaction with each other sound comedic or outright sarcastic: “You have a great body” and “Wow, your abs! Looks awesome” sounded mocking, not genuine. All of it had the same intonation. I turned off the dubbing, and it immediately improved.

A person drops from a grid of people suspended in the air into fog. The number 44 is on a screen behind them
One of Physical 100’s contestants drops out of the pre-quest mission

The first 25 minutes of the first episode, when we meet all the players, drag a little: 100 players is a lot, and it’s hard to really get a sense of any of them, unless you already know who they are.

Some players get a bit more introduction, and later in the first two episodes, there are brief bio packages for some players that provide some depth but aren’t as overwrought as they now are on American Ninja Warrior.

What remains interesting is the production design. “I thought, the production team went all-out,” one player says. Another tells us, “I got the feeling it would be like Squid Game,” and he’s not wrong: assistants and safety personnel wear gray jumpsuits with most of their faces covered.

A man strains as he holds on to a bar overhead, and his chin rests on a red bar
A contestant on Physical 100 strains during the pre-quest mission

Director Jang Ho-gi makes great use of the space, with interesting camera angles and a lot of slow motion. Alas, there’s also some unnecessary repeating of footage we’ve just seen.

The first challenge is a “pre-quest mission,” which offers an advantage in the first quest for the winner—and, it turns out, affects all of the players.

That first challenge is done in two heats, with half the players at a time struggling to hang on to a suspended apparatus. As it lifts into the air, the floor slides away to reveal swirling fog over a pool of water.

Even though “physique” is never really defined, the first challenge—quest zero—immediately demonstrates that it’s not just about brute strength, but endurance and mental strength, too. Those with massive bodies who could lift me and throw me across the room, not that I imagined that, don’t have what it takes to just hold on.

“My muscles weren’t made in a gym,” ice climber and mountain rescuer Kim Min-cheol says, taunting the others from an interview. “They were made in my everyday life while saving people.”

It’s not all physical, and the challenges and spaces are well-designed to allow for strategy to play a role.

Hanging has strategy: some hang by their hands, others wrap their arms and bodies around the structure’s bars. As they drop, a large screen shows the number of contestants remaining, and the rest stay in the pool, cheering on those above.

This challenge has comedic and dramatic moments: one contestant looks like he’s fallen asleep, another falls to his fingers, and then somehow does a pull-up to get back up and dangles with bars under his arms.

Two men wrestle in dirt; one is upside down and bent in half, and the other has his arm around his opponent's waist
Two players wrestle in one of the first quest’s arenas

After that, they’re placed in order, from 100 to 1, based on how long they lasted, and in order, get to choose who they’ll face in the first quest, a “Death Match”: 50 one-on-one match-ups, during which the players fight over a ball.

It’ll be a familiar challenge to both The Challenge and Survivor viewers, but is staged in two different arenas, which produce two very different kinds of matches. The playground arena lends itself to agility and speed, leaping and jumping and darting, while the other is just a pool of muddy water for brutal battles that many pairs fight without even bothering to grab the ball.

While 50 matches in the same two arenas is a lot, only a few are shown in the second episode. Those that get the editing’s attention have some shocking and stunning turns of events, like one in the green arena between people of very different body shapes and sizes and skills that goes down to the final seconds.

Will we see the remaining 50 matches in future episodes? (The first two of nine episodes are out today; others will be released on Tuesdays.) Or will the next episode montage many of those, as it ends up doing with the endurance challenge? I think that’s key to how engaging the show will continue to be.

Fifty of The Challenge’s arena match-ups in a row seems like it would be too much for me, yet the match-ups I watched were all more varied and dynamic than many of The Challenge: USA’s dull and repetitive competitions.

Yet Physical: 100 clearly separates itself by staging these in much more interesting ways, and giving all its time and attention to the contests.

The glimpses of set pieces in the preview, like players pulling a massive boat onto a bridge, or running across suspended bridges, are promising.

The scale, of both the cast and the spaces, is far greater than big competitions that have come before, from NBC’s story-driven American Ninja Warrior to Netflix’s chaotic Ultimate Beastmaster. Yet Physical: 100’s real strength is in its challenge design and cinematography, which gives just the right amount of focus.

Physical: 100

Impressive spaces host impressive challenges, but 100 may be too many players. B+

What works for me:

  • The impressive set design and cinematography
  • The varied types of competitors
  • The simple challenge design that leaves room for strategy

What could be better:

  • Less repetition in the editing
  • A quicker pace at the beginning

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Thursday 23rd of February 2023

The horrible repetitive sound editing is KILLING ME but the show itself is incredible. So addicted, just have to watch without sound (since I’m reading the dialogue anyway) so I don’t go insane. 😂