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“Grand Prix” is a horseracing drama from director Yang Yun Ho that charts the struggle of a plucky female jockey to return to the track after suffering a terrible accident. Although the film is about as far as it’s possible to get from Yang’s last outing, the complex, sexually charged mystery serial killer mystery “Rainbow Eyes”, the director has a pretty varied CV, including the drama “Holiday”, martial arts biopic “Fighter in the Wind”, and Jeon Ji Hyun romance “White Valentine”. The film has star power in the form of female lead Kim Tae Hee (“The Restless”), with support from Yang Dong Geun (“Fighter in the Wind”) and Ko Doo Sim (“Good Morning President”), not to mention a whole host of four legged friends.
The film kicks off with Kim Tae Hee as female jockey Joo Hee getting injured in a race accident, which also claims the life of her beloved horse. Quitting the sport, she decides to head to Jeju island to try and reassess her life, only to run into former Japan Cup champion and now fellow former rider Woo Seok (Yang Dong Geun). Thanks to the encouragement and kindness of Woo Seok and the other islanders, Joo Hee slowly regains her confidence until finally she is finally ready to face her fears and return to the saddle.
Although “Grand Prix” is basically a straightforward and predictable film, it does work in a surprising number of subplots, and there’s far more going on than just Joo Hee’s personal journey. The film is fairly complicated in comparison to its peers, and though there are no real shocks, it does hold the interest throughout, skilfully blending romance, drama and character development. Yang makes an effort to present a set of flawed though essentially agreeable characters, and the film is not quite the kind of sympathy grab bag that might have been expected, benefitting from being somewhat grounded and human. Although it does verge on soap opera at times, with pretty much every single character having a sob story or tragic secret, it shows a neat and economic approach that makes the melodrama and tears more palatable.
Turning in a strong performance, Kim Tae Hee holds the film together as the likeable Joo Hee, making for a protagonist who it’s very easy to root for as she faces up to a never ending series of challenges. Without pushing the underdog angle too far and despite being essentially by the numbers, her blossoming and development makes for rewarding viewing, and the film certainly offers the kind of feel good factor guaranteed to make it a crowd pleaser. Yang Dong Geun also does well as her beau, and their romance is all the better for being fairly unfussy. Wisely the film doesn’t really hinge on whether the two will fall for each other, with Yang getting it out of the way quite early on. This paves the way for a more rousing final act, as horse racing again comes to the fore, and the last act is suitably exciting.
Yang’s direction is solid throughout, and the film is well paced and visually attractive, with lots of gorgeous shots of the island as the characters go for sunset horse rides or gaze out at the ocean. He does lay things on a bit thick at times, with some overdone scenes of the de rigueur cute kid character crying as her horse is sold, and a truly ridiculous mad airport dash on horseback, that if it had been saved for the finale would have ended things on a note of inappropriate laughter.
Still, though excessive, these never sink “Grand Prix”, and if anything serve to make it more entertaining, and a neat combination of redemptive journey and sports film motifs. An absolute must-see for any horse lovers, the film should be equally enjoyable for the average viewer, and does just about enough to stand out from the overcrowded playing field.
Yang Yoon-ho (director) / Choi Jong-hyeon, Lee Jeong-hak (screenplay)
CAST: Kim Tae-hee