Haeundae-gu, Busan, Republic of Korea,
KO-Pick: The stories beyond the scoreboard
Eight Korean sports-themed movies that will inspire you
As the 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games, one of the largest sports competitions, concluded a few weeks ago. The KBO league, Korea's prime baseball league, also has just come to an end, Korean films offer thrills aplenty to every sports fan who suddenly find themselves with nothing to watch and cheer for. South Korea, with its rich history and passion for athletics (it usually ranks in the top 10 at every Olympics), is no short of sports-themed movies that capture the essence of competition, dedication, and the strength the human spirit against unfavorable odds.
These films are never content with just telling a compelling story of physical achievements in a competitive setting, they wave them into broader narratives, adding stakes that go well beyond the playing field. Whether you're a sports enthusiast or simply a fan of compelling narratives, these movies celebrate sports in all its forms and offer a diverse range of emotions and insights into the world of athletics and the human spirit.
Baseball: Scout (2007), by Kim Hyun-suk
Scout transports us to the 1980s, an era that evokes both nostalgia and sadness due to its brutal government and deadly persecution. What begins as a sports comedy, with a man going to great lengths to scout a high school genius pitcher into a college team despite fierce competition and his parents' disapproval, takes an unexpected turn when the entire city revolts against the military dictatorship and enters a state of siege, leading up to the tragic events of the 1980 Gwangju uprising.
Ski jumping: Take Off (2009) by Kim Yong-hwa
In Take Off, the Sports ministry chooses to put together a national ski jumping squad to compete at the top level in order to establish Korea’s legitimacy in ski sports and therefore increases its chances to host the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. Most of the athletes have just a smattering of skiing experience and hardly understand what ski jumping is all about, with the sole exception of their leader, a Korean-American who took part in alpine skiing competitions when he was a child. Yet, they are expected to place in the top six at the world championship in order to compete in the 1998 Olympics. With a concept similar to Cool Runnings, this picture is the most popular sports film Korea has produced, and it allowed actor Ha Jung-woo to achieve the degree of celebrity he enjoys today. It prompted a follow-up in 2016, this time about Korea's inaugural women's ice hockey squad.
Handball: Forever the Moment (2008) by Yim Soon-rye
Women's handball, a sport marked by collaboration, commitment, and unyielding spirit, was not as popular in Korea as baseball or soccer was at the time, but this movie brought it to prominence. This film chronicles the narrative of a squad of sportsmen that overcome personal and professional obstacles, particularly between two generations of players, to reach success. Two former professional players are summoned back, one as the captain and the other as the coach of a new national team, but their style of play is viewed with suspicion and scorn. When the coach is replaced by a man who tries to impose his controversial style, the squad finds in him a common enemy to stand united against. The plot was inspired by the circumstances that led to the South Korean squad reaching the finals of the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Yim Soon-rye, one of the best well-known Korean female directors, was at the helm of this project which won both the Blue Dragon Award and the Baeksang Arts Award for Best Picture.
Running: Marathon (2005) by Chung Yoon-chul
Marathon laces up its running shoes to tell a touching story about the benefits of athletic activities for self-development. What distinguishes this film is its focus on a protagonist, a young adult on the autism spectrum with a tremendous ability for running who aspires to compete in a genuine marathon. His supportive mother therefore contacts an old marathon winner, who reluctantly agrees to be his coach. Based on the actual tale of runner Bae Hyung-jin, the film depicts the transformational power of athletics and how people from all walks of life can join together to achieve what may seem unattainable at first, even in the face of adversity it earned the Grand Prize at the Baeksang Arts Awards that year, as well as the Grand Bell Award for Best Picture.
Table tennis: As One (2012), by Moon Hyun-sung
Another sport usually overlooked by popular culture, even though it enjoys greater recognition in Northeast Asia, table tennis was the focus of this film for its role as a bridge between people. As One recounts the true story of a women's team composed of two South Koreans and two North Koreans, hastily assembled in 1991 in preparation for the upcoming table tennis world championships, which were to take place a month later, following a sudden resumption of dialogue. This happened during the world championships in Chiba, and to everyone's surprise, this Unified Korean team won the title, defeating the Chinese team in the final.
Wrestling: The Foul King (2000), by Kim Jee-woon
Kim Jee-woon's second feature film reunited the filmmaker with one of his favorite performers following their initial cooperation on The Quiet Family. Song Kang-ho, the star of Parasite, was fresh off the astounding success of action movie Swiri (1999), and this new project provided him his first opportunity to establish his ability as a protagonist, in a character that was a great suit for him as it allowed him to exhibit his slapstick comedy skills. After visiting a shady gym, a bank teller unsatisfied with his humdrum and tedious existence finds a pleasant outlet when he chooses to take up wrestling. One day, he is noticed and given the part of an enemy fighter, who he decides to name “The Foul Kink”.
Korean wrestling (ssireum): Like a Virgin (2006), by Lee Hae-young and Lee Hae-jun
Like a Virgin adds a wonderful twist to the usual coming-of-age story by incorporating ssireum, a traditional Korean wrestling form solely performed by men, as a way for a trans teenage girl to attain gender affirmation. Living with an abusive father and is frequently ridiculed at school, listening to Madonna's music is her only relief. But one day, she meets a ssireum coach who recognizes the potential in her body frame to become a ssireum champion and agrees to train her. She immediately accepts when she realizes that winning competitions will allow her to pay for the sex reassignment surgery she has long desired. This early LGBTQIA+ Korean film was first shown at the Berlinale, where it was hailed as a breath of fresh air for Korean film.
Arm wrestling: Champion (2018), by Kim Yong-wan
Champion tells the classic story of a former athlete who gave up on his dreams but receives encouragement to try again. But this film distinguishes itself not only by being about the niche sport of arm wrestling, but also by having on board Don Lee, who is probably the only Korean actor who could best incarnate such a role. The actor was involved in the production from the beginning, with Warner Bros. as the distributor, and the movie was released just as Lee was becoming a household figure in Korean cinema.