Hyun Jung-hwa (Ha Ji-won) is South Korea’s best table tennis player, but to her bitter disappointment, she could never defeat the mighty Chinese team and has had to repeatedly settle for second place. While preparing for the next World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, she learns that North and South Korea are coming together to form a unified Korean team. Desperate for gold and despite coaches and players’ unanimous protests, she makes the monumental decision to play on the unified team—simply as Korea.
The clash between ingrained political ideologies and the emotional consequences of defying them, forms the core of the rousing sports drama, As One. Based on the true story of the combined Korean team that triumphed over hot favourites China at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championship, Moon Hyeon Seong’s unapologetically sentimental but wonderfully cinematic crowd-pleaser conveys with equal conviction, thrill-of-the-competition moments and a commentary on value of national unification.
That table tennis should prove so compellingly filmable is a revelation.
At the centre of the story are South Korean firebrand Hyun Jung Hwa (Ji-won Ha) and stoic North Korean Li Bun Hui (Doona Bae), two deeply nationalistic but otherwise chalk-and-cheese young table tennis stars with a fierce history as combatants (almost always facing off for silver and bronze honours, so dominant is China). When a government directive forces the North and the South to team up, the duo’s prejudices come to the boil.
As with all feel-good sports flicks, though, bonds eventually form. The training ground, once as competitive as the arena of battle, yields team spirit, romances blossom, and support for strugglers creates unity. (The entire sentence could easily apply to Breaking Away, Hoosiers, and several hundred other sports flicks.) None of it is the least bit original but, as the old saying goes, clichés become clichés because they usually work.
And Moon Hyeon Seong works them really well. That table tennis should prove so compellingly filmable is a revelation. (Not since Forrest Gump has the sport looked so good on-screen.) The support characterisations are broad but engaging; leads Doona Bae and Ji-won Ha dig deep to portray fully-realised women of athletic prowess and focussed ambition, often in face of self-serving officialdom and social expectations.
Most interestingly, the portrayal of the political landscapes of the two sides of Korean society is presented in a relatively even-handed fashion. (Chinese viewers, though, may resent the villainous role their citizens play in the film.) The free-spirited Southerners love life, but often come across as unfocussed and goofy; their Northern brethren are stiff and bound to the party-line preached by their minders but they get the job done. To the film’s credit, when these cultural facades crumble, the friendships formed are entirely believable.
As One plays to the back row in every regard (and, subsequently, is just a bit too long at 127 minutes), but Hyeon Syeong never loses grasp of his exuberant pacing or thematic intent. If you’re not shedding a tear during the Korea-vs.-China final, you damn well better be by the closing montage. The film challenges modern audience expectations, not because it brazenly sets new standards, but because it so lovingly embraces old ones.