By Sam Kim
Korea's Olympic handball players got a big boost this week when they attended a screening of a popular movie based on the performance of a 2004 Athens Olympic women's squad, amid encouraging remarks by top actors who starred in it.
Korean men's and women's teams were deeply demoralized and frustrated last year when they failed to win berths to the Beijing Olympics during the Asian qualifying rounds that were tainted by biased officiating.
The Asian Handball Federation-organized qualifiers were declared invalid in December by the higher International Handball Federation, which last week rescheduled the matches for Jan. 25-31 in Japan.
Tuesday's complimentary screening of "Forever the Moment
", sponsored by South Korea's sports governing body, was attended by scores of handball players and other Olympic athletes at a theater in Seoul.
"This was a great time to heal our wounds and step up our resolve ahead of the rematches", said Kang Il-gu, 31, captain of the men's team. "The movie was touching and exciting".
The flick revolves around Korea's 2004 Athens Olympic women's team, which came short of beating Denmark and winning a gold medal despite a grueling series of overtime plays.
The squad -- made of many formerly retired players in their 30s -- finished second, but their dramatic and unrelenting performance moved the hearts of many sports fans around the world, prompting media to hail the match as one of the most exciting Olympic moments in the year.
Released last week and rated for a general audience, the rare handball movie sold more than 520,000 tickets as of Saturday, topping the box office and easily rolling over Hollywood competitors.
"Starring in the movie was a great opportunity for me to understand the challenges facing handball athletes and develop tremendous respect for them", said Moon So-ri
, who plays a comeback Olympic gold medalist in the film.
"You have taught us so much", the 34-year-old actress told the players before the movie started.
"Our handball players have touched the hearts of not only Koreans but the world", said Uhm Tae-woong
, who plays a male coach in the two-hour flick. "Now, go win their hearts again at the Beijing Olympics".
Players expressed their gratitude by applauding the actors and the movie.
"They really helped us gain more confidence, and I have a good feeling that we'll claim our Olympic berths in next week's rematches", said Yoon Kyung-min, a 29-year-old male player.
Despite the growing support for the Olympic squads, handball experts say South Korea's domestic handball league continues to suffer from low popularity.
The country's largest nationwide competition began Tuesday in the city of Andong, Gyeongsang Province, but reportedly attracted only about 200 spectators despite free admission and a host of prizes.
"I had high hopes because our pain and efforts during the Asian qualifiers were largely publicized. But our popularity at home appears the same", said Chung Hyung-kyun, a senior official at the Korea Handball Federation.
"I'm not disappointed yet. Who would've thought a movie about us would be made?" said Jeong Su-young, a 24-year-old handball athlete. "We'll play harder in the Olympics, and we'll eventually win support at home".