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“As One” is a Korean drama mixing two of the country’s most popular cinematic themes, North-South reunification and sports. The true life story is based upon the fascinating events surrounding the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships, when for the first time ever North Korea and South Korea competed as one joint team. Directed by first time helmer Moon Hyun Sung (previously an assistant director on the daft horror “Yoga”), the film boasts two of Korea’s finest and most popular actresses in the lead roles, namely Ha Ji Won (known for television series such as “Secret Garden” and recently in “Sector 7”) and Bae Du Na (who also cut her teeth on early hit TV roles, and who has progressed to blockbusters like “The Host” and Hollywood with “Cloud Atlas”). More importantly, the film also had the involvement of South Korean table tennis legend Hyun Jung Hwa, a Gold Medal winner who played on the 1991 team and went on to coach the national squad.
The film opens with Ha Ji Won as Hyun Jung Hwa and Bae Du Na as top North Korean player Lee Boon Hee, two rivals who are shocked to hear that the North and South are to combine their table tennis talents in an effort to defeat China. The announcement comes just a month before the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan, leaving little time for the two mismatched teams and coaches to get used to the idea. Although things unsurprisingly start off awkwardly, soon Hyun and Lee are getting through their troubles and playing well together, only for politics and off-court issues to intervene.
“As One” certainly scores very highly indeed in the authenticity stakes, Moon Hyun Sung and the producers clearly having gone to considerable lengths to keep things real – on top of having Hyun Jung Hwa on board, they also enlisted several of the actual referees from the 1991 tournament, and had both Ha Ji Won and Bae Du Na undergo months of intensive training. There’s a pleasing attention to detail throughout, both during matches and in general, and though 1991 obviously wasn’t particularly long ago, the film still feels as if effort went into recreating the time and place. It’s also helpful that both Ha Ji Won and Bae Du Na are on great form in the lead roles, not to mention being fully believable as highly competitive and talented table tennis players. The hard work was definitely worth it, and the film is one of the few sports movies to really convince, and it thankfully differs quite a bit from the usual schlocky uplifting underdog stories, sticking to events and diverging from the typical three act structure.
Of course, the film does make some concessions to the more generic elements of the sports genre, though thankfully it never pushes the inspirational or nationalistic elements too hard, the only real concession to cliché being the comically evil Chinese team (the film stopping just short of accusing them of cheating). Though there are plenty of subplots involving friendships, rivalries and relationships (including the inevitable North-South romance), the supporting cast (including Lee Jong Suk (“Secret Garden”), Han Ye Ri (“Ordinary Days”), Choi Yoon Young (“Little Black Dress”), Oh Jung Se (“Over My Dead Body”), Park Chul Min (“Sector 7”), and Kim Eun Soo) are all likeable enough, with only a few reasonably well-judged instances of comic relief here and there to keep things light. For the most part, all of this takes a definite back seat to the changing dynamic between Hyun Jung Hwa and Lee Boon Hee, and it’s their growing friendship and respect which anchors the film emotionally, gives it depth and makes its sports scenes both dramatic and engaging, especially towards the big match climax.
As a result, “As One” is one of the rare Korean films to be truly about women, giving its characters and their relationship room to develop in humanistic fashion and without any of the usual patronising distractions. While still most likely to appeal to fans of the sports genre, the film shouldn’t be pigeonholed with its far more clichéd and straightforward peers, Moon Hyun Sung offering something substantial and which provides a very effective look at the North-South divide.
Moon Hyeon Seong (director)
CAST: Doona Bae … Li Bun Hui
Woo-hee Cheon … Hyun Jung-Hwa’s younger sister
Yoon Yeong Choi …
Ji-won Ha … Hyun Jung Hwa
Ye-ri Han … Soon-bok Yoo
Liu Jang … Wang Ming