The marathon, the pinnacle of athletic achievement, that most glorious sporting edifice to the strength, tenacity and persistence of mankind, of all popular sports, it is viewed as the grandest testament of endurance and it is only fitting that, following in its subject’s footsteps, Pacemaker should proudly take on that mantle by becoming the year-to-date’s greatest cinematic endurance test.
Sports movies are rarely too fixated on the physical activities they depict, they are merely gateways into their characters, sometimes they can be metaphors and they always hope to add some entertainment value. Korean cinema is particularly astute in its appropriation of generic tropes and it should come as no surprise that the sports film has become prevalent in the local industry. Rather than exploit a sport for it aesthetic or escapist potential however, Korean hitmakers have long seized on their melodramatic potential. So thoroughly has this line been pursued that any sport is fair game, local popularity doesn’t really factor into it. The results speak for themselves: how else could the country’s most successful sports movie be about South Korea’s ski-jumping team (Take Off, 2008)?
Pacemaker uses another sport that is ripe for melodramatic manipulation and does this so comprehensively that I hesitate to call it a sports film, rather it is another in a long line of mediocre family melodramas. And just like all of those, it is full of lazy deus ex machinas, trite aphorisms and sweeping stereotypes. Staying on that last point for a moment I was quite surprised by the film’s tack, though perhaps that isn’t the right word. I think what I felt was closer to being offended. The main character is a simpleton but to the point of ridicule, it is hinted that he might be mentally handicapped. I really wasn’t sure where they were going with this but far more egregious was the representation of his fellow team member of African origin. He is played by the charismatic Abu Dod who was great in 2010’s sci-fi sleeper Haunters but here is left hanging in a role where it honestly seems as though the filmmakers asked him to act like a monkey. In this day and age there are no excuses for these kinds of backward characterizations.
I was hoping that the presence of Ahn Sung-ki might bolster what was always going to be a very sentimental affair but sadly it seems he bestowed all of his ample talents for the year on the magnificent Unbowed (which came out on the same weekend), leaving little left for this torpid affair, just enough to scrape by with a pass. In the lead role Kim Myeong-min (Detective K, 2011) tries hard but again he is not given much to work with and it sometimes unclear exactly who is character is.
As an inexperienced debut director it could be that Kim Dal-joon was another pawn installed by the studio to carry out their bidding. Though considering how poorly he handles his actors and given the listed faults I think that the weight of the blame lies squarely on his shoulders. The mise-en-scene is dreary albeit functional while the plotting is more or less even, just unremarkable. I daresay I won’t be too excited if he gets another go in the director’s chair but given the film’s poor receipts and the wealth debut directors who never progress, it may never happen.
To be fair the film burbles on in a relatively painless and acceptable manner for most of its running time but when it approaches crunch time it slides down into the fiery pits of ultra-melodrama and yields some of the most laughable sequences I’ve seen in some time. I don’t want to spoil them and I daresay you don’t really need me to point them out but for my own amusement let me call these the ‘Incredible Running Umbrella Boy’ and ‘Hole-y Marathon Man’ sequences. While these scenes do bolster Pacemaker’s so-bad-its-good points, at a lethargic 125 minutes, I’m not sure they’re worth the wait.
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