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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Take Off (Gukga daepyo) 2009

One of the genres that has gained traction over the last decade in the Korean peninsula is the sports film. In international cinema the sports film has had an interesting development and has certainly caught on more than numerous other genres. Westerns for example, are popular in America but have had limited appeal overseas, although this did not stop Kim Ji-woon from taking his chances with The Good, the Bad and the Weird. The sports film has found success in most successful national cinemas. Britain has long been a source of them, films such as Chariots of Fire (1981) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) have long been considered classics and recently films coming out of Germany, The Miracle of Bern (Das Wunder von Bern, 2003), and China, the uproarious Shaolin Soccer (Siu lam juk kau, 2001), have found large audiences.

Take Off is by no means the first Korean sports movie. The Foul King (Banchikwang), another Kim Ji-woon film (I'm starting to think that he is the Korean equivalent of Howard Hawks but that is a discussion for another day), was an early hit from 2000. Since then there have been a number of contributions to the genre, not limited to but including: Forever the Moment (Uri saengae choego-ui sungan, 2008), Rikidozan (Yeokdosan, 2004), Marathon (2005), YMCA Baseball Team (YMCA Yagudan, 2002) and A Barefoot Dream (Maen-bal-eui Ggoom, 2010). Not all have been successul but some have been wonderful, Marathon in particular.

The second-highest grossing film of the year (after Haeundae), Take Off is the most successful sport film to come out of Korea so far. As much as I was looking forward to watching this, I found myself very disappointed for the very same reasons that many people disliked Haeundae: the set up is long and uneven (and melodramatic) but the lengthy exposition does add somewhat to the more genre-centric final act. So it does end well, but the journey for me was a little uncomfortable despite my having an unusually high tolerance for mediocre Korean cinema.

Take Off is based on a true story but after my research, I imagine that most of what ended up on the screen was fabricated, which is to be expected. Many common themes in Korean cinema find their way into the new narrative, including fraught relationships between sons and mothers and subservience to and subsequent betrayal by authority. What is quite interesting is that this narrative in which the underdogs manage to elevate themselves above their station is set right around the same time that Korean entertainment came into its own and thus domestic portrayals of scarred Korean identities became popular. Even though the characters make it out okay in the end, there are still some brief instances of hesitation. Chief among them for me was when the main character arrives back from the Olympics with his teammates and breaks down when he sees his biological mother. Instead of neatly wrapping this plotline up with a tearful embrace, the mother leaves the scene without saying a word.

This is one of those Korean films that is difficult to appreciate as a foreigner, the most egrigious block to viewing it as a native English speaker is listening to the main character (a Korean-American) speak the most atrocious English I've ever heard. It just might be worth sitting through it for the olympics sequences though, they are very well put together and quite exiting. Just don't get me started on the mentally-handicapped brothe


  1. My internal cynic really left me with very low expectations for this film, but it actually managed to exceed my admittedly low expectations.

    The matter of English in Take-Off reminds me of conversations I've had with people about the often poor usage of Korean on "Lost" by Daniel Dae Kim, a Korean American playing a non-emigrant Korean. Especially combined with the very non-Korean production/art design of their flashback moments in Seoul, it regularly broke my suspension of disbelief. But, I let it slide for the sake of staying entertained by what was (at least early on) an intriguing story.

    Nice blog by the way--I'll keep reading in the future!

  2. I always thought it was funny that they got an American who didn't speak Korean to play that role while his wife who speaks English is actually Korean! I noticed what you're saying about Lost a little bit but clearly not as much as someone who speaks the language.

    As far as Take Off is concerned, I guess it would not have been such a deterrent for audiences in Korea but I do think it barrs it from ever finding a significant audience in English-language territories.