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Original Title:

South Korea 2005


Jeong Yoon-chul

Cho Seung-woo
Kim Mi-suk
Baek Seong-hyeon
Lee Gi-yeong
Ahn Nae-sang
Park Mi-suk

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Story: Cho-won (Cho Seung-woo) is an autistic young boy. His mother (Kim Mi-suk) after her first errors in his education starts to take care of him with all her heart, which on the other side causes her husband (Ahn Nae-sang) to move out and let's her neglect her second son (Baek Seong-hyeon) in every aspect.
She gets her now 19-years old son in touch with running. Cho-won who has a strong affection towards nature and animals seems to feel free and is able to open up a bit towards other people only when running. His mother lets him participate in an amateur marathon contest and he even becomes third. Now, she has something big in mind for Cho-won and she hires a trainer, who was a popular marathon runner himself some years ago. Nowadays, however, Jung-wook (Lee Gi-yeong) is only a shadow of his former self, who has to do social work at a school for mentally handicapped, because he was caught drunk when driving. He's not really motivated, but after some time with Cho-won he realizes his potential and the two even become friends.
Yet, Cho-won's mother isn't really sure about her decision anymore. Maybe marathon running isn't something for her son and maybe he only likes it because she wants him to. She discards her dreams of Cho-won being a maraton runner, but her son slowly starts to have his own ideas and wishes...

Review: "Marathon" is a touching and an outstandingly well achieved drama, that despite its manipulative nature can touch the viewer. Every now and then, first time director Jeong Yoon-Chul gets lost in some clichés with his pictures, nonetheless there are also lots of moments that are imbued with an exceptionally likeable kind of magic.
At the same time we are shown that the main character in no way suffers from autism, because "suffer" would apply to an illness, but not to this kind of handicap. Cho-won just sees the world in a different way than others do. Even though there are lots of emotions involved, naturally, since he is also a burden for his environment at times, director Jeong does convey a very positive mood most of the time, which can only be described as heart-warming and moving.

Autism becomes more and more known to other people, yet there are still misapprehensions. Many people who were introduced to the topic by the movie "Rain Man" believe that this handicap comes along with the ability of incredible accurate and fast calculating or similar skills. That's not necessarily the case, even if many people having autism also posses outstanding skills in some fields. So it's no wonder that "Marathon" makes fun of this prejudice in a very amusing way. When the coach gets aware that Cho-won recites an animal documentation word by word he gives him a math problem to solve. Well, let's just say that he doesn't seem to be very good with numbers...
Actually, we get to know lots of background knowledge concerning autism and this in a very interesting way. People with this handicap stick to old patterns, i.e. they have an usual seat in the canteen, they are also very hard to motivate and with their childlike naivity they understand some things just differently from how they were meant. But the biggest difference between them and people who don't have autism is that they don't seem to be able to establish interpersonal relationships or show real emotions. No surprise here, concerning the last assumption we are disabused with this drama.

The acting achievement from Cho Seung-woo ("The Classic", "Who are you") is really impressive. He always seems to be a little bit mentally absent, yet with his lively nature he soon arouses sympathies. It's also commendable that Cho never tries to be in the spotlight or wants to be the star of the movie. He is just who he is and this makes his portrayal so convincing.
Furthermore, Kim Mi-suk, who is playing Cho-won's mother, is also doing a good job. She is of two minds about the marathon thing, not knowing if it's right what she's doing. Does Cho-won really have fun being a marathon runner or is this just something she talked him into. You never can be sure with Cho-won and her care for her son oftentimes resembles obsession. Which is no wonder since she wants to make up for a mistake she did many years ago, when still being a young mother.
The relationship between Cho-won and his mother is captivating and we are shown that the asseverations of the mother that her son is like anybody else are wrong in the end. Cho-won is different, which is something she has to become aware of first, but this doesn't make him a bad person of course.

The obsession with which the mother cares about her son and her wishes she projects on him did eventually cause the family to fall apart. Cho-won's father is always on business trips, rarely visits his family and the younger brother of Cho-won is neglected by his mother. It's a shame that the film doesn't show more of the problems in the family. The subject is only broached, however, the focus remains on the sport drama around Cho-won.
Sport drama? Yes, that's how "Marathon" feels at some points, which is also one of the sore points. There is the unmotivated coach, who starts to become friends with his student and brings out the best of him, and there is also the predictable ending when suddenly a twist causes Cho-won's mother to think that it's not the best choice to let her son participate in the marathon, and Cho-won himself suddenly has his own will and joins the marathon anyway. It all seems a little bit generic and too contrived for this movie, because you somehow have the feeling that it deserved better than this.

The humour is very well done, because more than once you might have to laugh out loud, e.g. when the coach secretly eats Cho-won's plums and the student panically searches for them, eventually suspects his teacher and henceforth runs his laps carrying his bag. Most of the time the humour is build on the Eulenspiegel-like behavior of Cho-won. He understands things the way they are said and when some things don't go the way he wants them to or he was supposed to do, he acts like a computer with an error message. Actually, Cho-won doesn't seem to be familiar with most emotions, but his love towards nature and running seems to be an exception to the rule. Even though some scenes might seem a bit cheesy, which is mostly because of the typical tear-jerking piano music, there are also enough moments that are radiating an extraordinary kind of magic. When Cho-won touches the gras while running or at the end walks through masses of people then this is some sort of bridge for him connecting him with other people. This way he can feel, be free and establish relationships and emotions. The director also let's us take a glance at the inside of Cho-won's head in the last minutes, and shows us how he sees the world. It's these moments that make "Marathon" something special.

Director Jeong Yoon-chul combines pretty successfully a sport drama with a drama about a handicapped boy. He introduces us to the world of this extraordinary person in a truthful and sometimes even funny way and manages not to drift into too much melodrama. Even though in some respects the film might be better than "Rain Man", the sport story along with its clichés sometimes is just too hackneyed. Except of Cho-won and his mother the characters lack some depth and as already said sometimes you have the feeling as if one tries to manipulate the emotions of the viewer. At least this all doesn't lead to an ending full of tears, but to a really heartwarming one. A recommendable drama, that misses a better rating just by inches.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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