I didn’t expect to cry while watching a ping pong movie. But I did. Because it’s more than just a ping pong movie; it’s an incredible film.
As One dramatizes the historic conjoining of the North and South Korean ping pong teams for the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan. At the beginning, there’s more that separates the two teams than a net and the 38th parallel. The stoic and militaristic North Koreans are preyed upon by their more expressive and relaxed South Koreans, which is met with violent response. The bitter rivalry between the team’s top female players accentuates the long distance the players need to go towards working together.
But they did -- to unparalleled success. The similarities in the drive and the humanity of the players helps to overcome their differences. Soon, the young players are arguing to stay together, rather than be ripped apart by political forces.
Economic and impactful, the script is near perfection with its sub-plots of a Romeo and Juliet-esque romance propelling the story forward. The teaming of rivals Hyun Jung-hwa and Li Bun-hee allows the shedding of preconceptions and the formation of a deep bond between the two. The evolution of this relationship is especially nuanced and meaningful, with credit due to first-time feature director Moon Hyun-sung and the superior acting of Bae Doo-na (Li) and Ha Ji-won (Hyun).
Additionally, the actors themselves all played world-class ping pong. No special effects, no stunt doubles.The cast trained upwards of seven months in preparation for the film. Bae studied the little footage existing on the North Korean Li and imitated her playing style, including her signature serve. A right-hander, Bae also had to learn how to play left-handed. The real-life Hyun Jung-hwa, the only Korean to achieve a Grand Slam in table tennis, was brought in as coach, and the actress portraying her had astoundingly never played before.
Bae and the other actors portraying North Koreans also had to learn regional accents. The mercurial and charismatic Bae, familiar to audiences for her lead role in Air Doll and The Host, has talent on par of Meryl Streep.
As One is the best movie I've seen in years, and had me crying, cheering and wanting to know more about the real people that inspired it the film. Undoubtedly it will be compared to Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, and other great underdog sports movies. However, being that there’s no other country in the world with a demarcation separating its halves, its political nuances can’t be replicated. The film's ability to portray this complexity through the players' relationship is what makes As One incomparable.
As One opens June 1 at select theaters and in Los Angeles June 8.
A special note: CJ Entertainment is planning to bring superstar actress Ha-Ji Won, Sector 7, Secret Garden, and Haeundae, to CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles’ flagship Asian Cinema house on June 5 for a special screening. More info here.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!