A passionate 46-day challenge, "As One" (photo courtesy of CJ Entertainment)
It may be the most confident decision a feature film director can make; a movie title which is simply the name of a country: Korea. Not South Korea or North Korea but just simply Korea.
Based on a true story, the premise of the film is as simple as its title. In 1991, at the 41st World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba City, Japan, South and North Korea joined forces for the very first time in history to create a unified team. The unfolding of the story, however, is not as simple, for there were many complex situations and misunderstandings the team had to endure to come together as one. As the movie's tagline goes, "It was a challenge itself for us to become one".
Table tennis is a popular sport in Korea, with expectations of good results in international competitions quite high. The decision for a unified team was unexpected and sudden. With barely more than a month left until the championships, the two Koreas came together to create a unified team in order to overcome the Great Wall of China and bring home the gold, something which both were unable to do individually.
The film focuses on the women's doubles team composed of star players at that time; Hyeon Jeong-hwa from the South and Rhee Boon-hee from the North. Both players were well-known in the world tennis table circuit and had met often as rivals on the international competition scene. Both were of similar age, determined, highly competitive, and with a great desire to bring home the gold.
Ha Ji-won and Bae Doona take on the lead roles as the two players, Ha as Hyeon and Bae as Rhee, and both attack the roles in their own distinctive way. Ha Ji-won, the queen of trendy TV dramas, has an earnest approach to her portrayal of Hyeon, from her Busan dialect to her trademark high-pitched shout "Fighting!" Bae is less exposed on TV so her Rhee is a bit more believable. She is more instinctive in her role. Her almost deadpan delivery conveys the reserved emotions of Rhee quite well, with subtle changes as her character opens up more and more.
The supporting cast is also brilliant. They offer the right amount of comic relief and poignancy without overpowering the film with "Characters". Park Cheol-min and Kim Eung-soo are the veteran actors of the bunch, Park as the coach from the South and Kim as the coach from the North. Park is known for his precise comic timing while Kim is a classically trained actor who manages to dissolve seamlessly into every role he takes on. The different personalities of the coaches are quite symbolic of the two Koreas.
Young actors Choi Yoon-yeong-I and Lee Jong-suk provide the romance angle as a potential South-North couple whose relationship cannot help but have a sense of fatality. Their rapport offers a glimpse into the more emotional and personal side of a divided Korea: the deep longing and hope, tinged with a sense of sorrow and helplessness.
However, among the supporting cast, it is the actress Han Ye-ri who proves to be the scene stealer as Yoo Soon-bok, the up-and-coming rising star of the North Korean table tennis team. Han, a regular on the independent movie scene but relatively unknown elsewhere, puts in an acting performance so convincing it's quite difficult to believe she's not Soon-bok, or an actual athlete.
In fact, it's difficult to believe they all aren't athletes. Under the coaching of none other than Hyeon Jeong-hwa herself, whom the movie is about, the actors went through months of strenuous training for six hours a day before filming. All the table tennis going on in the movie is by the actors themselves. Hyeon, who is famous for being a strict disciplinarian, did not consider the actors as actors but as athletes and put them on an incredibly tough schedule, so much so that the actors would point out in their interviews that the hardest thing about the movie was "the table tennis training with no breaks". Ha Ji-won was a "training machine", according to her co-stars, while Bae Doona had to learn to play left-handed because she is a right-hander, and Han Ye-ri had to do vice versa.
Korea is a sports movie. But it isn't just any sports movie. If you're Korean, film is an acute reminder of the still-divided state of the country, of how it's not only about ideologies or politics but about people, heart and soul. If you're not Korean, watching the film would help you understand the essence of what and how Koreans are, whether it is about sports, family, love, country, brotherhood, or life.
The film does take some artistic license for dramatic effect and diverges from some facts, but one certain fact is that it was a historical event which hasn't been repeated since.
The real Rhee Boon-hee and Hyeon Jeong-hwa (photo courtesy of CJ Entertainment)
Hyeon Jeong-hwa has stated in various interviews that she greatly wants to meet Rhee Boon-hee again. Hyeon is still coaching table tennis in the South; Rhee heads a sports organization in the North. Many people are hoping that their meeting would soon be possible, especially in this Olympic year when sports will take the spotlight.
The film is currently showing in theaters nationwide. English-subtitled Korea is being shown at certain CGV theaters: http://www.cgv.co.kr. The showing times are limited for the subtitled versions, so confirming them before heading out is advisable. (The site is in Korean and you may need assistance from a Korean friend or colleague.)
The list of theaters which show movies with English or Japanese subtitles is also available on the Korea Tourism Organization's site: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/CU/CU_EN_8_5_2_6_0.jsp. International release dates are yet to be announced. Perhaps to avoid being confused as a documentary film or not to seem too mundanely earnest, the English film title is being promoted as "As One".
Official Site: http://www.asone2012.co.kr
By Suzy Chung
Contributor/The Korea Blog Blogger
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