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Original Title:

South Korea 2012

Sports, Drama

Moon Hyeon-seong

Ha Ji-won
Bae Doo-na
Han Ye-ri
Choi Yoon-yeong
Park Cheol-min
Kim Eung-soo
Lee Jong-suk
Oh Jeong-se
Park Yeong-seo
Kwon Tae-won

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As One

As One - Film Screenshot 1

Story: In 1990 Hyeon Jeong-hwa (Ha Ji-won) participates in a table tennis tournament against the North Korean player Ri Bun-hui (Bae Doo-na) - and she wins. During the finale she has to admit defeat against the impregnable Chinese opponent, though. One year later Hyeon is in preperation for the World Table Tennis Championships when her team suddenly is notified that North and South Korea will participate in the championships as a single unified team. No one is really excited about this, not even Coach Lee (Park Cheol-min) since he won't be the one leading the team, but North Korean coach Jo (Kim Eung-soo). This unusal unification of two enemy nations for a sports tournament is also bringing the media to the scene. And they just get the story they were looking for when the first argument between the teammates escalates. But slowly the two teams get closer. Only Hyeon and Ri stay enemies. And this even though they would be the only ones in doubles that could stand a chance against the Chinese. Hyeon's partner Yeon-jeong (Choi Yoon-yeong) may be good, but she isn't good enough and Ri's partner Soon-bok (Han Ye-ri) is too nervous in her matches. Can Hyeon and Ri manage to temporarily reconcile their differences?

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Review: Sports movies always struggle with the problem that the course of the story and the dramatic arc of suspense is already set from the beginning, at least along general lines. Accordingly, you could almost say: If you know one sports film, you know them all. So when it comes to writing a review you can merely focus on the character elaboration and the movie's emotional impact on the viewer. And in this respect it soon becomes appparent that "As One" is one of the best sports movies from Korea. On par with for example "Forever the Moment". This is mainly thanks to two strong women carrying the story and the great eye for detail shown in this adaption of an actual table tennis tournament. The filmmakers were clearly making an effort to capture the spirit and atmosphere of that time and they succeeded in doing so.

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Care for some examples? The real Hyun Jung-hwa taught not only Ha Ji-won ("Chronicle of a Blood Merchant", "Sector 7") to play table tennis, but also was at disposal for the rest of the actresses as a trainer. And there are no stunt doubles. All actresses faced the physical challenges of the shooting with all-out commitment in order to create the highest level of authenticity. Ha Ji-won started training months before the shooting began as did Bae Doo-na ("A Girl at My Door", "Linda Linda Linda") who even had to learn how to play with the left hand as a right hander. Even the referees from the original tournaments were hired for the film as well as other members of the Korean team as consultants. In a cinematic sense this effort surely paid off.

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The table tennis matches are captured in a thrilling fashion, but they never take too much space for them to become dull. Moreover, the atmosphere is just about right and the mood created by the audience will electrify you as well. But all of this wouldn't have worked out if it weren't for a story around friendship standing in the centre of the plot. It's not just the friendship between two countries, which are split as enemies until this very day, although people yearn for reunification. The friendship between two women also proves to be the film's driving force. Of course, the members of both teams can't stand each other at first, after all a giant gap of different ideoligies seperates North and South Korea. But as things progress more and more warmth is mixed into the icy atmosphere between the two teams.

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While the rest of the team members find common ground pretty soon, in some way or another, there is a rift between the two female protagonists for a very long time. On the one hand this might be because they have been rivals before, but on the other hand this could also be because Ri Boon-hee is extremely reclusive and cold. And that's where the film makes use of its biggest ace up its sleeve: Bae Doo-na. Naturally, Ha Ji-won is the character we easily sympathize with the most, but despite all of my subjective goodwill when it comes to Ha she can't compete with Bae. While Ha Ji-won expresses her feelings very straighforward, Bae shows several nuances hiding behind a mask, which probably only she is capable of pulling off the way she does. Thus, she also turns out to be the most interesting individual and in the end she is responsible for more surges of emotions with her subtle acting than Ha with her numerous tears.

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As already stated the story and its outcome are absolutely obvious - although it needs to be stressed that these are real events, too - but the intermezzos are what make the actual foundation of this movie. The supporting characters also reflect the bigger drama with their little stories around a friendship that is hindered by the partition along the 38th parallel. Fortunately, there are no awkward patriotic moments, no clichés (apart from the depiction of the Chinese...), but two Koreas that stand side by side as equals, unified by a sport. This simply works out very well and so "As One" is a drama that manages to do without a fatal illness and instead provokes tears - of which there are maybe a few too many towards the end, which eventually has a negative impact on the overall rating - that some people will gladly shed. After all, friendship, unity and yearning for reunification are standing in the centre of this picture.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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