“How much time has passed since we defeated a player from China?”
In response to the North Korean bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, a Summit was organized between North and South Korea in order to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula. As a result of the Summit, it was decided to quickly create a combined Korean sports team, with table tennis being chosen as a unifying symbol due to its popularity in both countries. This led to the formation of the first-ever unified team, named simply “KOREA”, to compete in the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan. Inspired by this event, Moon Hyeon-seong has created a movie that showcases how the two teams came together, the challenges they faced, and their eventual success.
In 1990, the movie opens in Beijing with a match between North Korea’s captain Ri Bun-hui and South Korea’s captain Hyun Jung-hwa, which results in a loss for Ri. However, during the final match, Hyun loses to China’s Deng Yaping, which has become a common occurrence in the sport. Six months later, the South Korean team is preparing for the 41st World Table Tennis Championships in Busan when their coach, Lee, announces that the North and South Korean teams will compete together for the first time. They will use a newly designed Korean Unification Flag and their head coach will be Jo Nam-poong from North Korea. The joint training begins later in Chiba, but tension is evident due to the presence of North Korean “security” and differences in mentality. The strict discipline of the North clashes with the more relaxed approach of the South.
Jung-hwa currently shares a room with her teammate, Choi Yeon-jung. Choi has a crush on a player from North Korea named Kyung-sub. Meanwhile, Bun-hui is roommates with Yu Sun-bok, who struggles with anxiety during competitions. Despite facing conflicts, the two groups are able to build a stronger relationship leading up to the games. However, various problems arise and hinder their progress.
Moon Hyeong-seong is the director of a film that follows the classic underdog story, a common theme in sports films. However, the way he portrays his main characters as underdogs is unique and captivating. Not only does China hold a dominant position in the sport, but the members of the joint team must also overcome their personal issues and animosity towards each other in order to work together as a cohesive team. This dynamic is the most compelling and central aspect of the film’s plot.
The movie is set in the North and South of Korea, where the young and fiery Choi Kyung-sub clashes with the playful Oh Doo-man. This sets the tone for the film and is further intensified by the vocal clash between the two coaches, who eventually bond over a drinking contest. The one-sided romance between Yeon-jung and Choi Kyung-sub solidifies this dynamic, which is initially comedic. As the two groups begin to understand each other’s struggles, the film takes on a more dramatic tone, particularly through the opposing captains who eventually become friends, showcasing one of the movie’s strongest aspects.
The high quality of this film is largely due to the impressive performances by Bae Doona as Bun-hui and Ha Ji-won as Jung-hwa, who showcase their similarities in a remarkable way. The dynamic between these two characters is a crucial element of the story and is enhanced by their well-developed personalities. Similarly, Lee Jong-suk as Kyung-sub is contrasted with Oh Jung-se as Oh Doo-man, and Choi Yoon-young as Yeon-jung is pitted against Han Ye-ri as Yu Sun-bok. The conflicts and challenges faced by the female characters and the fact that they must give up their positions to someone from the opposing side adds an intriguing layer to the plot. Despite some of the actresses sporting unconventional bob haircuts, their on-screen presence is not diminished, and both the acting and casting are commendable aspects of the film.
The most notable aspect of the movie is its portrayal of the sport, which is depicted in a visually stunning and cinematic manner. Cinematographer Jo Dong-heon effectively captures the action in a realistic yet thrilling way, while editor Kim Sun-min’s work shines in these scenes. The slow motion shots and special effects are well-executed, and the movement of the athletes is impressive, although the sweating may be exaggerated.
As expected, the portrayal of the Chinese as antagonists (and the Japanese as unimportant) is highly exaggerated, just as the Korean characters’ heroism can become overly dramatic, especially towards the conclusion. However, the film maintains a certain equilibrium between the South and the North, which greatly benefits its overall impact. It also highlights the role of the South as catalysts for success on various levels.
The movie “As One” is a heartwarming film that captures the charm of its main characters, showcases the sport in a captivating way, and portrays the journey of their challenges, unity, and victory in a way that is enjoyable to watch.