V-I-C-T-O-R-Y! Korean sports movies

Written by on January 11, 2012 in Arts, Lifestyle

Anyone who has seen the millions of Koreans flocking to the streets and plazas to cheer on the National Team during World Cup season would probably be aware how much Koreans love sports. Korea is a highly competitive society where focus, diligent attitude, eagerness for hard work, and teamwork is highly valued; all elements that can be found in sports. Add pursuit of honor to that mix and you’ve got a perfect combination for grabbing people’s attention.

Koreans also love the cinema, and Korean cinema isn’t always about horror, hardcore thrillers, or romantic comedies. Sports have appeared in various movies during the history of Korean cinema, as plot devices or as interests of the characters, and quite frequently, as the main attraction. Many were based on real life events or people, emphasizing the dramatic aspect.

The first Korean sports movie to be released was “Buy My Fist” (내 주먹을 사라) in 1966. Directed by legendary Kim Kee Duk (born in 1930, not to be confused with Kim Ki Duk, the director of “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring”), the movie is about a boxing champion, starring not an actor but Korea’s first world boxing champion Kim Ki Soo in the title role. It’s a brutally realistic take of the sport and human spirit, and also a good look into 1960s Korea.

Boxing was quite popular in Korea until the early ‘90s and although its popularity slowly waned, boxing movies “Champion” (챔피언, 2002) and “Crying Fist” (주먹이 운다, 2005) were hits at the box office. “Champion” depicts the real life of boxing champion Kim Deuk Gu and his bout with Ray Mancini; while “Crying Fist” is more of a dramatic buddy movie, starring Ryoo Seung Bum and Choi Min Sik  of “Old Boy”  fame.

Although it was boxing that started off the history of Korean sports movies, baseball is the sport which is the most represented in Korean cinema. “Perfect Game” (퍼펙트 게임, 2011) was just released last December, with “actor’s actors” Yang Dong Geun and Cho Seung Woo portraying the rivalry and camaraderie between high profile pitchers Sun Dong Yeol and the late Choi Dong Won in the 1980s, which culminated in the 15 inning showdown in 1987 which lasted 4 hours and 54 minutes, where both pitchers held the mound from beginning to end. It is remembered as one of the greatest games in Korean pro baseball history and the movie successfully captures all the drama and emotion of that day.

Another fairly recent baseball movie is “Glove” (글러브, 2011), and although it’s not a real life story, it is based on a real baseball team – the team from Chungju Sungsim School, a school for the deaf. The team was established in 2002 and competes in the high school division but has yet to win a single game. Based on this premise, the movie brings a hotshot pro baseball player disgraced by scandalous behavior begrudgingly taking on the coaching job at the school following the urging of his manager. This combination unfolds into quite a predictable story but it doesn’t mean you feel any less moved.

The first Korean baseball movie to hit the big screen, “Lee Jang Ho’s Baseball Team” (이장호의 외인구단, 1986) is based on the popular comic book series “The Horrifying Outcast Baseball Team” (공포의 외인구단, Daunting Team or Alien Baseball Team depending on translation, 1982) by Lee Hyun Se. The movie was a huge hit at the time due to the popularity of the comic, but to see it now, it’s mostly the 80s fashion that pops out the most. Other notable baseball movies include: “YMCA Baseball Team” (YMCA 야구단, 2002) about the first baseball team in Korean history, another real life story about the underdog leftie pitcher Gam Sayong “Mr. Gam’s Victory” (슈퍼스타 감사용, 2004), and the hilarious comedy “Scout” (스카우트, 2007).

Football (aka soccer) first shows up in the black and white movie about football at an orphanage, “Glory of Barefoot” (맨발의 영광, 1968) and later in “Mother Love” (모정, 1972) which is loosely based on Korea’s football legend Cha Bum Kun in his early days. It’s only decades later when football makes it appearance again but unfortunately many of the movies weren’t that warmly received, with the exception of “On the Pitch” (꿈은 이루어진다, 2010), a comic and heartfelt look at the South and North soldiers of the DMZ in the 2002 World Cup season, and “Barefoot Dream” (맨발의 꿈, 2010), a movie about an ex-football player who tries to rebuild his life in war torn East Timor by teaching the local kids how to play football, while learning his own life lessons.

Interestingly, the most successful Korean sports movie box office-wise deals with a rather unpopular sport, ski jumping. “Take Off” (국가대표, 2009) stars Ha Jung-woo as a member of Korea’s haphazardly made first national ski jump team and portrays the team’s trials and efforts to become recognized nationally and internationally. Based on a true story, Ha is joined by an amazing supporting cast with the movie bringing ski jumping into the limelight in a country whose main interest in winter sports was limited to speed skating and figure skater Kim Yuna.

When real life is full of so much drama, there really is no need for a fictitious story. Another movie about an underappreciated sport is “Forever the Moment” (우리 생애 최고의 순간, 2007), which features the national women’s handball team in their Olympic quest. Women’s team sports do not garner much attention compared to men’s team sports, and watching all the hardship and pain the team had to endure in order to achieve their goals gives you immense hope and determination – in fact, the movie is constantly quoted when mentioning the “never die” spirit.

Perseverance and endurance are virtues revered in Korean society so it may only be natural that there is a keen interest in marathons. The most well-known marathon movie “Running Boy” (말아톤, 2005) is about an autistic 20 year old youth and his passion for running, his family, and the circle of people who show their love and support for him. Although based on a true story, it’s not only the story that makes the movie memorable – the performance of the entire cast is truly stellar.

“Barefoot Ki-Bong” (맨발의 기봉이, 2006) is another true story based marathon movie with a similar subject but a lighter touch, and the much anticipated “Pacemaker” (페이스메이커, 2012) tells the story of a pacemaker who had always sacrificed himself for the sake of others facing a marathon run purely for himself alone. The movie stars the chameleon actor Kim Myung Min and is to be released on January 18th.

Not all sports movies are serious dramas; there are many comedies as well. “The Foul King” (반칙왕, 2000)  stars top actor Song Kang-ho as a disillusioned banker who finds solace while moonlighting a pro-wrestler; “Lifting King Kong” (킹콩을 들다, 2009)  deals with the unusual subject of a country girls’ middle school weight-lifting team; “Like a Virgin” (천하장사 마돈나, 2006) tells a story of a high school boy, whose dream is to become a perfect woman like Madonna, joining the school’s ssireum (씨름, Korean traditional wrestling) team in order to win the championship and its monetary prize to fund his future transsexual operation.

All these movies may be light and funny, but do not lack depth whatsoever.

It’s impossible to list all the movies there are (there are several horse racing movies, for example) but just taking a look at the above will take quite a lot of time. Sports and the spirit of sports is quite universal, and noticing cultural differences here and there would also be interesting. Happy viewing!

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul