You guys. I really think it’d be worth your while to clear some room in your schedule to watch this movie.
Yes, it’s an older movie from 2012, and yes, it’s about table tennis, which you may or may not have a strong interest in, and yes, it does take a little while to actually get good. BUT. It’s ultimately so moving, so inspiring and altogether affecting, that I think it’s more than worthwhile.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
This is a dramatization of the true story of the first time North Korea and South Korea put forward a combined team, to compete at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan.
1. The movie was written based on several lengthy interviews with Hyun Jung Hwa (played by Ha Ji Won in the movie), and a coach for the Korean national team.
2. Many of the athletes who had been present at the competition availed themselves to train the cast on-set, and Hyun Jung Hwa herself personally coached Ha Ji Won and Bae Doo Na for their roles. Ha Ji Won was new to table tennis, while Bae Doo Na had had some experience playing in her primary school days.
3. Bae Doo Na chose to play left-handed, to maintain the authenticity of her portrayal of Ri Bun Hui, which created an even greater challenge for her.
4. The cast trained for months leading up to filming, and there were no body doubles used for the tournament shots, although CGI was used for the table tennis balls.
5. Hyun Jung Hwa did a cameo in Hospital Playlist 2, so you might actually remember her from the table tennis episode!
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS / THE VIEWING LENS
Here are a few things that I think would be helpful to keep in mind, to maximize your enjoyment of your watch:
1. It’s a bit of a slow burn.
To me, Show only really gets grippy after the first half, give or take, and that has a lot to do with this next point.
2. Show can feel rather heavy-handed.
What I mean is, Show appears (to my eyes, anyway) to lean quite heavily into archetypes, in populating our story world.
What I mean is, the South Koreans seem extra boisterous, and the North Koreans seem extra stoic. This settles after some time, but it’s quite obvious in the initial stretch, I feel.
If this bothers you, hang in there, because it gets better.
3. You don’t need to be a table tennis enthusiast to enjoy this one.
I know next to nothing about table tennis, and still found myself very well engaged by all the training and competition stuff.
4. This is based on a true story.
Any time I struggled with the way a character was portrayed or how things were being fleshed out, reminding myself that this is a true story about real people – basically, that these are actual memories for a group of people – helped a lot.
STUFF I LIKED
1. The growing bond between the team members of the North and South.
This was THE highlight of the movie, for me. More than wanting our combined team to win at the competition, I felt more invested in the developing relationships between the team members.
It feels like almost every person on each team has someone with whom they truly bond, from the other team.
I appreciated the bond between Doo Man (Oh Jung Se) and Kyung Sub (Lee Jong Suk), the friendship between Soon Bok (Han Ye Ri) and Yeon Jung (Choi Yoon Young), as well as the touch of romance between Kyung Sub and Yeon Jung. However, my personal favorite, hands-down, is..
2. The friendship between Jung Hwa and Bun Hui.
I kind of knew, going into this show, that the relationship between Jung Hwa and Bun Hui would be a main focus and therefore a likely highlight, but I have to say, the way this sisterhood ended up stealing my heart and making me cry legit big fat tears, still took my breath away.
It’s a little slow in the brewing, but when Jung Hwa and Bun Hui eventually get to the point where they are overtly appreciative of each other, it works out to be something very satisfying, because, beneath their differences, it feels like these two get each other in ways that most other people wouldn’t be able to.
Even though they come from very different backgrounds, there is so much commonality between them, in terms of how they both instinctively understand how important table tennis, and by extension, this competition, means to the other person, and therefore, how worthy this all is, of sacrifice.
3. Ha Ji Won as Hyun Jung Hwa
If you’ve been around the blog for a while, you might know that Ha Ji Won isn’t one of my favorite actresses.
So while I can’t sincerely wax lyrical about Ha Ji Won’s performance in this, I have to acknowledge that she does a very solid job of the role.
Also, while I personally didn’t care for some of the character mannerisms that Ha Ji Won used, I have to be mindful that Ha Ji Won studied Hyun Jung Hwa’s actual mannerisms and quirks very closely, in order to flesh out her character. Well done all around, objectively speaking.
4. Bae Doo Na as Ri Bun Hui.
I have to admit that between our two female leads, it was Bae Doo Na as Bun Hui who commanded my attention.
There’s just something about the way Bae Doo Na plays her; she makes Bun Hui hard and stoic, yet soft and empathetic, at the same time. So often, I felt like I could tell what Bun Hui was feeling, even though she said so little.
5. Han Ye Ri as Soon Bok.
Han Ye Ri won Best New Actress at the 2013 Baeksang Arts Awards for her role as Soon Bok, and with good reason.
Even though Soon Bok is a supporting character, she has a pretty key role to play in our story’s development, and Han Ye Ri – so fresh-faced in this role! – knocks it out of the park with her brand of earnestness, innocence and sincerity.
I loved her as Soon Bok, and, more than once, wanted to reach into my screen to give her a hug.
6. So many familiar faces!
..And everyone looks so baby-faced, too. Even Kim Won Hae, who plays a small part as a sports commentator, looks baby-faced, no lie. It’s quite trippy, really. 🤩
If you’ve been around Dramaland for a while, spotting and placing all the familiar faces is, in itself, a bit of a thrill. My favorite unexpected sighting (not that he’s a small character; I just.. didn’t expect to see him there), was Park Jung Hak, who plays a North Korean intelligence commander here, and whom I last saw as Chauffeur Oh, in Money Flower.
SUCH a different vibe!
STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
So I understand that this movie is based on a true story, so it’s entirely possible that my area of discomfort is simply a retelling of the facts. It’s just that I found the way the movie made the Chinese team out to be rather nasty types a bit.. uh.. not so pleasant to watch.
To be clear, this isn’t just because I happen to be Chinese. When Racket Boys did a similar thing in making Indonesia appear to be a nasty host country for our Korean athletes, I’d found it uncomfortable too.
Still, because this movie was made in close consultation with those familiar with the events, I’ll have to withhold judgment, despite my personal discomfort with the way this facet of our story was handled.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
Y’all. This show legit made me cry, in its final stretch. It’s altogether moving, to see these people, who had been so wary of one another, now become one team, in all the important senses of the word.
Honestly, now that the credits have stopped rolling, I still feel completely overwhelmed, and I feel like I need to let my emotions just be, for a while.
The way the South team knelt in the rain to earnestly request to be allowed to compete alongside their North teammates; the tearful jubilation on both sides, at simply being allowed to compete together.
The way the individual athletes gave so much of themselves, for the benefit of the entire team; the way Jung Hwa is willing to put aside her personal dream for Bun Hui’s health; the way Bun Hui won’t allow it, because she understands how much the gold medal means to Jung Hwa.
Augh. It’s edge-of-your-seat, heart-thumpingly good stuff, and my heart sank and soared, alongside all of our characters’.
I was really glad to see our combined team win that gold medal, but I have to say, the thing that really got me by the heart, was the goodbye that came afterwards.
Although it’s baked into the premise, and we all knew from the start, that this partnership was for a finite period only, it still gutted me, to see these people having to say goodbye to one another, after standing by one another so fiercely, and fighting alongside one another so bravely.
The tearful hugs are such a far cry from the initial suspicion and hostility, and it’s heartbreaking because we can see that, given the chance, these people would all be so great, together.
The moment that made me cry the most, hands-down, is when Jung Hwa desperately knocks on Bun Hui’s bus window, and then hands Bun Hui her precious gold ring, as a keepsake.
It’s so clear to see how much this friendship means to Jung Hwa, because that ring had been a gift from her father, who’s in a vegetative state in hospital. Yet, she values Bun Hui enough, to want Bun Hui to have that ring, to remember her by. My heart.
The finality of this goodbye is nothing short of heartbreaking.
It makes my heart ache to think that these people have no way of keeping in touch, even though they care so much for one another. No letters; no phone calls; no emails. All they have is their memories, and the knowledge that they’ve shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience together.
I am so glad that Show gives us a glimpse of the real people who’d lived this story, via the small reel of photographs that we see at the very end, just before the final credits.
It’s a small comfort to know that Jung Hwa and Bun Hui did meet again, 2 years later, at the 1993 World Table Tennis Championships, where they were competitors.
And, I’m glad that Show dramatizes that moment for us, showing us the small smiles that Jung Hwa and Bun Hui gave each other, across the table, and giving us a glimpse at the bond that continued between them, with Bun Hui still wearing Jung Hwa’s ring.
At the same time, it’s so very poignant to think that they haven’t had another chance to see each other, in the almost 20 years since.
Still, I’d like to think of this as the stars aligning, the seas parting, and the 38th parallel lifting, for a suspended moment in time, in order to allow these two legends a chance to join hands, which they might otherwise never have had the opportunity to do.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A bit of a slow-burn, but ultimately so stirring in all the right ways.
FINAL GRADE: A-
For a glimpse into Ri Bun Hui’s thoughts on her friendship with Hyun Jung Hwa, check out this article that was published in The Salt Lake Tribune, in 2012.
For an interview with Hyun Jung Hwa, check out this article that was published in The Korea Herald, in 2018.
As far as I can tell, efforts to reunite Hyun Jung Hwa and Ri Bun Hui have not yet succeeded, but perhaps one day soon, it’ll happen?
WHERE TO WATCH:
You can check out this movie for free on OnDemandChina.
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