It is still just about Olympic time, so how about we have a little look at a sports movie, based around that most Asian of sports, Table Tennis. Even better, as this is not only one of the films I have been most looking forward to seeing over the past 6-9 months, mostly because it stars two of my favourite Korean actresses – Ha Ji-won and Bae Du-na. It can’t really fail can it? Or can it?
“As One” is based pretty much on true events. As part of an attempt by North and South Korea to defuse the high tensions in the peninsula in that late 1980’s/early 90’s, the two countries decided to enter a joint team into the World Table Tennis Championships. Of course this was not only difficult on a political level, but also it was going to be a struggle for the athletes personally, as these were also big sporting rivals. This is epitomised by the rivalry between both nations top female players – South Korea’s Hyun Jung Hwa (Ha Ji-won) and Li Bun-hui (Bae Du-na). Initially the group is wracked with tensions, leading to bad performances and all out disharmony. But slowly, aided somewhat by a doomed romance between two of the other players, and by the desire to beat a common rival in the constantly successful Chinese team, the team grows together. Hyun and Li also find a common understanding, but just as things are finally working out, the North Koreans lose their nerve over what this common unity might lead to. And even if they can succeed as a team, what is going to happen once this sporting event is over, and the status quo is returned?
Let’s not make any bones about this. What we are talking about here is a sports movie, with very much a Korean bent. Therefore, whilst great pains have been made by the Director and Producers to make things as accurate as possible in terms if the sports action (the actresses were trained by experts such as Hyun herself, Bae Du-na even had to learn to play left-handed to match her real life character, and current western players were drafted in to add authenticity) – this is much more interested in telling the human side of the story, with that typical Korean melodramatic touch which will not necessarily sit well with an international audience.
However, that actually does make it exactly my cup of tea. I’ve seen far too many sports films that, like this one, tale some liberties with actual events to tell an uplifting story of the underdog. They do have their place, but this film is smart enough to show just enough Ping Pong action to keep that particular audience interested (with not too much reliance on special effects and camera trickery), but then actually concentrate on both very personal human stories, as well as the more tragic political one. The fact that some of the sporting action that is shown is not ripped directly from the History Books is unimportant.
The political side intrigued me, and in some ways this was not quite realised as successfully as it might have been. We see much of the shadowy influence of the North Korean government, tightly controlling their athletes, and throwing their toys out of their pram when things get a little uncomfortable for them. But what we don’t get is a South Korean equivalent, we never really have a view on that high level discussion and debate. The potential rivalry from an all-conquering Chinese team never really gets off the ground either – there are a couple of little stand offs and some ball crushing, but it is wisely not explored – the real drama here is not about the Chinese, but about the Korea’s.
Fortunately the personal stories are much better filled out, but without missing the point. Ha Ji-won’s character gets the most work – not only is she clearly the best player in her country, and adored by all, but she is driven by a desire to work hard for her sick father. In fact you get the feeling that as impressive a player that she is, she would give it all up for her family. There was a bit of personal amusement seeing her playing against the North Koreans too – last time I saw her was over the last few months where I have seen her playing a North Korean herself in the “King 2 Hearts” K-drama.
Bae Du-na just doesn’t know how to act badly. Initially her character very much has a villainous streak, and is hard to support. But slowly we see she is the one who actually thaws first, makes that first approach to make them work as a team. And whilst the onset of a long standing illness is a little hackneyed, it really isn’t overplayed too much.
The two main actresses stand head and shoulders above the rest, but no one let’s the side down. The little side stories of some of the alpha male rivalry and of a doomed romance between two players on different sides of the divide add some colour to proceedings.
My favourite scene was one where the coach drew a amorphous blob on ta board and drew a line across it. What do you see he asks the players? Initially they see Korea, with the line representing the 38th Parallel. But Hyun pipes up that she sees the net across a table tennis table. And in a way, they are both right. The sadness is that despite this small moment in time, this connection between two peoples divided by an artificial construct and opposing ideologies, that nothing really changed. Except a handful of people made a real connection, made real friends.
Which is why, in the concluding segment of the movie, when everyone breaks down in tears and hugs, it is acceptable, and it feels totally real. It’s the sort of moment that only ever really works in Korean Cinema. Yes, this is the story of a small and temporary unification, but it is one that should still inspire hope, some 20 or so years later.