Director: Moon Hyun-sung
Starring: Ha Ji-won, Bae Doo-na, Han Ye-ri, Choi Yoon-young, Park Chul-min, Kim Eung-soo, Oh Jung-se
Alternatively known simply as Korea, As One tells the true story of North and South table tennis athletes being brought together to form the first Unified Korea sports team since the division of the peninsula in the Korean War. Ha Ji-won plays Hyun Jung-hwa, a top athlete from the South who finds a strong rival in Northern athlete Li Bun-hui, played by the great Bae Doo-na. Despite their competitiveness and skill, the two Korean athletes find the dominance by China is absolute and find themselves earning silver and bronze respectively. When the next World Table Tennis Championships draws near, the unexpected decision to combine teams for the first Unified Korea sports team causes friction between athletes from both sides. The morbidly stoic Northerners and the laid back Southern athletes fight as much amongst themselves as with opposing teams. Slowly, the teams begin to mesh and truly start to play like a Unified Team should; forming strong friendships, respect, and great teamwork. As the finals approach, with the dominant Chinese team, can this group of players overcome the trials and ideologies pushed onto them and their sport and truly play AS ONE?
Ha Ji-won and Bae Doo-na are the stars here with the crux of the film really relying on their chemistry and it is great. Ji-won’s Hyun is a passionate player and wants nothing more than to excel in her sport. Doo-na’s Li is competitive and playing for the glory of her country, despite her true love of the game hiding under the surface. Their competitiveness as rivals who respect each other quickly becomes the rallying point behind which team unity really begins. If you did not believe these rivals could find friendship, the movie would have failed. The drama of their situation and physicality of the matches are both handled quite well, with nuanced strong elements to their and the team’s performances. In particular, the matches look extremely good with the real, Hyun Jung-hwa serving as the technical coordinator and training both Ha Ji-won and Bae Doo-na to play in the style of both herself and the real Li. Of particular note is the fact that Doo-na had to learn to play southpaw as Li herself was a lefty.
The film displays a polish and attention to detail which I truly appreciated. Being set in the 90’s amid much media scrutiny, there must have a lot of documentation about the team and the production designers really took these first hand sources as good guide for the look of the film. Clothing and hairstyles are definitely from the early nineties and I actively recall my aunts having the same look way back when. The film is shot well, with standard static photography for the comedy and dramatic elements and much more dynamic camera movements during the tournament scenes. Music plays a good bit in encapsulating the scene, especially during moments of patriotism and camaraderie. As One is a really technically well made film.
During the viewing I felt the film had a bit of a Remember the Titans vibe to it, which is good since I truly enjoyed that film as well. The feeling of distrust between the two sides and the eventual partnership they form is tale that’s been told time and again, but is one that I feel is always engaging and increasingly nice to see and hear about. As a non-Korean, I definitely do not have the cultural history to equate the feeling that Koreans have for a divided nation, but anyone can get the message that peace can come about through understanding and experience. Despite the differences in ideology, both sides realize that you can hate the ideology but not the person; you’d only hate your family. That sentiment is easy to comprehend but harder to implement. If this bit was a bit preachy for a review, I apologize, but the film really does a great job in establishing viewpoints and it is hard not to wish for the country to become one again.
In the end, As One is fantastic, uplifting and hugely entertaining film making. First time director Moon Hyun-sung really impressed me on his first outing and I look forward to new work from him. In this day and age of gritty and dark themes in film, it is so great to see a film you can watch and literally stand up and cheer for. The positive message coupled with great storytelling, strong performances, plus technically polished movie making has propelled As One to one of my Top 10 films of the year. If there are any films which can surpass it, it’ll be an amazing year for films indeed.