WTF ASIA 37: Forever the Moment (2008)

Did you know that Handball was not merely a term in soccer, but a sport in its own right? Well, not only is it a sport, but it is an Olympic sport. Here is a movie about an Olympic handball team.

Free on Netflix. Approximately 125 minutes.

 

So, what is handball anyways? Well, if you don’t know, then you are not the only one, because there are very few people in attendance at a rather important tournament. Even one of the player’s kids is kind of wandering around the playing area…pretending to play soccer. Still, the blue team wins and the winning team try to lift their coach up in celebration…but he is not having it. At all. And their celebratory meal afterwards is quite quiet. Despite winning the championship, the team is getting disbanded. One of them, Soo-hee is moving up to the national team, but the rest? What about Mi-sook and Jung-rang? Well, no.

So Mi-sook starts her job at a supermarket. The pay is bad, but her family needs the money. Her husband, a former handball player, had borrowed money, only to get swindled by his business partner. So he has to find the guy while also hiding from debt collectors. Her boss remembers her from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but she finds herself rather embarrassed by his enthusiasm. And then she goes home to bear the brunt of the debt collector’s wrath. Finally unable to take it, Mi-sook packs a case and takes her son, Dong-yoon to stay with Soo-hee, a fellow teammate from the Olympics and the only one from the recently disbanded team to be picked for the nationals.

It is from Soo-hee that Mi-sook learns about Hye-gyeong. Hye-gyeong had also been on the 1992 team and had gotten successful coaching a Japanese team. After several other potential candidates declined be head coach for the national handball team, the position has gone to her, at least temporarily. Soo-hee assumes that Mi-sook is probably unhappy with this, seeing how she was better than Hye-gyeong.

Hye-geong’s first act as acting head coach is to berate the national team for barely qualifying for the Olympics, and that they have to practice harder if they are going to beat teams with players that are bigger than them. Her next-to last act as acting coach that day is to lob a ball at Jin-joo’s head for committing a foul during practice. Then, after ending practice for the day, she announces that the next day will have two more hours of practice.

When Soo-hee meets up with Hye-geong after practice to ask her about the team, Hye-geong complains about all of the inexperienced youngsters and asks her why Mi-sook is not on the roster. Soo-hee does not quite explain, but places the blame on Mi-sook’s husband. Hye-geong tracks down Mi-sook at the supermarket to beg her to join the team. Mi-sook demands a cash advance from the team association, which Hye-geong accepts. Mi-sook still refuses, saying that she is too tired to go to practices and that any money that she gets from winning or whatever will simply go to paying off her husband’s debts. Before leaving, however, Mi-sook suggests recruiting Jung-ran. Jung-ran has been working at a restaurant with her husband. And, while they are deeply in love, she is miserable there. So, she jumps at the chance to be on the national team. It turns out that Hye-geong arranged for a cash-advance for Mi-sook, so she comes to practice with her son. And after lunch break, she is also on the team.

Pretty quickly, Mi-sook, Soo-hee, and Jung-ran seem to form a clique against the resentful younger players. Tensions almost immediately lead to a brawl that, for some reason, neither Hye-geong nor the assistant coaches try to break up until one of the team owner gets hit with a ball. In his office, Chairman Kim claims to not be upset at getting a black eye. However, he tells Hye-geong that he has chosen a man named Ahn Seung-pil as head coach, since he is the best Korean handball player. Kim has determined that any supposed advantage that he had assumed would come from having a woman coach a women’s team was not to be and would be overshadowed by Hye-geong’s divorce. Hye-geong protests that her divorce is irrelevant, claims that she was promised the position permanently, and then storms out.

Soo-hee and Jung-ran ask Hye-geong to stay on as a player, even if it may seem like a humiliating step down. An irritated Mi-sook recounts the effort that Hye-geong took to hook her onto the team before suggesting that the real problem is the choice of Seung-pil, who was Hye-geong’s boyfriend way back when.

Seung-pil comes in all dashing and charming and…a little cheesy. Instead of emphasizing the “Korean” style of playing, as Hye-geong did, Seung-pil tells the team to play creatively, which makes Mi-sook roll her eyes. He wants to adopt a more European-style of playing, using logic and efficiency. Soo-hee and the younger players clap, but Mi-sook and Jung-ran are unimpressed. Meanwhile, a despondent Hye-geong is at her mother’s and considering going back to Japan.

Seung-pil is having the players do some sort of motion-capture thingamee to analyze their playing abilities. When he starts berating Soo-hee for not hitting the non-existent ball, Jung-ran speaks up to call the whole process into question. Seung-pil shuts her down and says that their whole way of preparation will be overhauled and personalized. He personally calls out the older players for being familiar to the opponents and, thus, predictable. Again, Mi-sook rolls her eyes. They are basically the same age, so Seung-pil comes across neither as a spring chicken nor a wizened sage.

Eventually, Hye-geong decides to return as a player, though Seung-pil sees her as just another member of the old guard who is stuck in the old ways and who will undermine his authority. Of course, he deliberately has her rooming with Bo-ram, whom she had criticized the most when she was acting coach.

Seung-pil is…well…not wrong about the older players causing him trouble. Hye-geong argues that Korean players will not be able to oppose European players using the methods that he orders, while Mi-sook bringing Dong-yoon with her every day and just letting him roam around seems to Seung-pil to be an annoying distraction. And, in a clear violation of his personalized diet plan, Jung-ran has her husband bring food from the restaurant for Dong-yoon and the older players to eat. Unfortunately, that last part came with some drink that causes all four of the players to fail the doping test. Seung-pil does not expel them from the team for that, but does publicly imply that they stand a good chance of being cut from the team for being older and, thus, less able to perform.

Privately, however, one of the assistant coaches points out to Seung-pil that Hye-geong, Mi-soo, and Jung-ran are among the best players that they have overall, while Soo-hee is the only real goalkeeper that they have. So, he is stuck with them.

 

Before watching this movie, I honestly had no idea what Handball was. Nor did I know that South Korea had been pretty high up there in terms of women’s teams. Apparently, they had won silver in their 1984 Summer Olympics debut, gold in both 1988 and 1992, and then silver again in 1996. They would win every Asian Games match between 1990 and 2018 except for in 2010. And they won fourteen out of seventeen Asian Championships between 1987 and 2018. Also, they won a World Championship in 1995. However, getting fourth place in the 2000 Olympics led to a fall from grace.
The four main players were based…loosely, on the four older players in the 2004 games. Mi-sook is based on Oh Seong-ok, who was the first South Korean woman (and third South Korean) to compete in five Olympics, between 1992 and 2008. Hye-gyeong is based on Lim O-kyeong, who competed in three Olympics, coached a couple of Japanese teams in the late 1990s, and was the player-manager of Seoul City Handball Club from 2008 to I don’t know. Soo-hee is based on Oh Yong-ran, who was the goalkeeper in the Olympics. Finally, Jung-rang is based on Kim Hyun-ok, who played in 2000 and 2004. As to the personal lives and personalities of the various characters, I cannot really say. The real-life counterparts of the characters seemed to like the movie enough that the inaccuracies regarding themselves and others did not bother them that much. Heck, they even took part, via video chat, in an event where the members of the 2004 Danish team watched the movie in 2014 at the South Korean embassy in Copenhagen.
If you are not knowledgeable or interested in handball, not to worry. The sport is mostly in the background for most of the movie. There is enough of the sport for you to understand the basics, but it is not too bogged down that casual viewers get lost in the forest. For sure, this is a sports film, and there are sports tropes. So, if you are a sports movie buff, then you might find this movie to be a tad bit predictable. I read two reviews that specifically acted like it was a bad thing that the movie had a training montage. Much of the focus, though, is on the characters. So, when the focus switches (maybe a bit abruptly) to the 2008 Olympic Games, you are invested in the game enough to watch several minutes of it. I will admit that I had a bit of a difficult time getting into this movie at first, as it seemed to be just people squabbling and fighting. But, once I was hooked, I was hooked. For some, I suppose that that moment did not happen. Well, nuts to them.
The movie appears to be setting up a rivalry between Hye-gyeong and Mi-sook, dating back to their days playing in the 1990s. Whatever rivalry there may have been gets put on the backburner, however, as they find themselves pitted against both the younger players and Seung-pil. While Seung-pil gets quite a bit of screen time as the coach who struggles to maintain his authority, only Bo-ram gets to stand out much among the younger players.
I am guessing that the generational divide between the players was exaggerated a bit as, while the four real-life counterparts to the main characters were in their early thirties during the 2004 games, there were also two 29-year-olds and a 28-year-old, and the youngest player was 21-years-old, older than at least three players in the 2017 World Championships team. So there was more of an age-spectrum than a gap. And while there were a few Olympics newbies, a few had played in 2000 and even 1996. Any clashes between the older players and head coach Lim Young-chul would have had a different context, since he was 48 at the time, not in his 30s like them. As for romantic relationships between the players, I have no idea. Still, that bit of license still allowed for a story about characters who were already considered old in their thirties, but without any of the respect that came with that consideration.
The focus of the movie is on these four characters, and they kind of get put in their narrative boxes. Soo-hee and Jung-rang are the supporting characters of the four, so they get to be kind of dual-comedic sidekicks. Meanwhile, Hye-gyeong and Mi-sook are the dramatic co-leads. Hye-gyeong has done well for herself, but is a divorced single parent, and probably has more of a connection to Japan than to South Korea at this time. Mi-sook probably wishes that she was a divorced single parent, since her husband has run off she has to bear the burden of his debts.
What the four characters have in common is handball. While Jung-rang’s relationship with her husband is much better than Mi-sook’s, she is miserable working at the restaurant. A mostly independent Soo-hee finds out the hard way that her value in South Korean society outside of handball is quite limited. Hye-gyeong and Mi-sook, failing to achieve the ideal housewife position, have grasped onto the sport. It is the one thing that they are really good at, the one thing that gives them real joy in life, and the one thing that gives them money. Well, maybe not so much for Mi-sook, since she starts out the movie in massive debt and a bit resentful that the one thing that she is good at doing cannot get her out of it. There is one reveal towards the middle that indicates how much this means to them. From a practical standpoint, it had me scratching my head upon second viewing over whether that actually happened in real life, but I suppose that it worked dramatically to hammer the point home. Handball may be unglamorous, unpopular, and unladylike, but it is all that they have. It is all that they have been allowed to have. It may not bring glory, but it will bring them temporary moments of escape. They cannot wonder what will happen to them if they can no longer have it. Is that exactly like every other sports movie protagonist? Maybe, I don’t care; I liked it here.

If you have seen hundreds of sports movies and have been disappointed that none of them were simultaneously exactly like and completely different from Raging Bull or whatever, then you might not enjoy this movie. Otherwise, you might.

 

WTF ASIA 38: God of Gamblers (Hong Kong: 1989, Approx. 126 minutes).

Wikipedia

Available…somewhere.

 

WTF ASIA 39: Pushpaka Vimanamu (India: 1987, Approx 129 minutes).

Wikipedia

Available online.