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Exhilarating 'Take Off' in Korean Sports Drama

2009/07/23 | 1453 views | Permalink | Source

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

Imagine, being perched above a vertigo-inducing height, swishing down a roller coaster-like slope and then freewheeling through the air ― with only a pair of skis to safeguard the landing.

Ski jumping is a minority within the sports scene here, but onscreen the icy game provides for the hottest summer movie experience. Packed with adrenaline rush, tastefully crafted drama and a rocking soundtrack, "Take Off" ("Ski Jump") lifts viewers onto a pulsating flight in this story about ski jumpers that dared to dream ― and fly.

Director Kim Yong-hwa didn't need to adopt the standard formula for sports films. Sure, the movie features conventional elements ― setting hurdles to overcome, overturning team dynamics and lots of sweating ― but truth is sometimes more interesting than fiction, and the filmmaker simply had to tell the amazing story, which he does with finesse.

Inspired by true events, the movie takes viewers to 1997 Muju, North Jeolla Province, which is bidding to host the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. A national ski jumping team needs to be whipped together for the campaign, and Bang (Sung Dong-il), a former children's skiing instructor, is asked to coach.

Coach Bang's mission is to round up some athletes that could act as a disposable cog in the wheel. His first target is Bob, played most convincingly by "it" actor Ha Jung-woo. For his role as a Korean adoptee who has experience in the U.S. Junior Alpine Ski Championships, Ha has polished up the fresh-off-the-boat broken English he spoke in "Never Forever" opposite Vera Farmiga to articulate slang-ridden lines.

Bob returns to his birthplace in search of his biological mother, which he has prepared for all his life by learning Korean. While he initially refuses to represent "the country that abandoned" him, Bob becomes convinced that being a national athlete could invite media exposure and thus help find mom.

The tearjerker melodrama wears a thick layer of mainstream superficiality, but is set off by fine comedic counterpoints.

Meanwhile, Heung-cheol, a womanizing club waiter (Kim Dong-wook), requires no more than a glance at Bang's beautiful daughter Su-yeon (Lee Eun-sung) to be in on the game and Jae-bok, a young man living in the shadows of his "fascist" father-cum-boss (Choi Jae-hwan), sees the offer as a ticket to independence. Chil-gu, on the other hand, cannot afford to be drafted into the mandatory two-year military service because he needs to care for his deaf grandmother and borderline simpleton brother Bong-gu (Lee Jae-eung). He joins out of desperation, since wearing the Korean flag on his chest would enable him to defer, and a gold medal would permanently relieve him of the duty.

The construction of the Muju ski resort is underway in the stifling summer heat, and the ski jumpers undergo some pitiful sticks and stones-style "training". Save for Team U.S.A.-clad Bob, the rest toil in sweats instead of jump suits and helmets clearly not tailored for the sport. Lacking access to a proper ski jumping facility, they head over to an abandoned theme park with some nails and boards, waterproof sheets and buckets of water.

It's like how a so-called swimming athlete, lacking access to a decent pool, learns strokes in a bathtub and in the depths of his imagination, but goes on to wow the world in his first dip in a real pool.

The film culminates in some impressively rendered Olympic Games scenes; the beauty of "Take Off" lies in the love of the game ― the magic of flying. But the emotional release is only meaningful, of course, because the viewer's heart is with that of the characters, and the music director of "200 Pounds Beauty" completes the audiovisual experience with some great scores.

The few homegrown sports dramas, "Forever the Moment" and "Bronze Medalist", feel like a prelude to the establishment of something as solid as "Take Off".

In theaters July 29. Distributed by Showbox/Mediaplex

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