It has been a while since I have featured lighter stuff. So here is a story about a girl who…cannot ride in vehicles without vomiting? Uh…well, the vomiting scenes are not as gross as they could have been. Also, it has chapters like that Snyder movie does without being nearly as long.
Man-bok lives on Ganghwa Island, off the western coast of South Korea and…er…pretty close to the northern coast of North Korea. When Man-bok was 7-years-old, she took a ride in her father’s new car. Was this the first time that she had ever taken a ride in a car? Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, she puked in the car.
It became clear that Man-bok would get severe motion sickness any time she was riding in a vehicle. And it would get worse as time went on. Other than that, though, she was physically fine. By the time that she turned 10, though, it got so bad that she decided to just walk everywhere. And I guess that that was fine for someone living on Ganghwa Island.
Unfortunately, the high school was a two hour walk from Man-bok’s home. And when it became time to consider moving closer, her mother got pregnant. So, Man-bok would walk two hours to school and two hours back home every school day.
She would usually show up late and doze off during class to the annoyance of the teacher and the more studious (though not necessarily all that smart) classmate Ji-hyun, who sits next to her. As a result, her grades suffer.
Man-bok meets with her homeroom teacher, Ms. Choi. She notices the book on Ms. Choi’s desk, a self-help book about following one’s passions and dreams to find success. Ms. Choi tells her that it is her favorite book, and is something that Man-bok could ascribe to. But she has noticed that Man-bok has shown no eagerness about anything. She looks through the records and notes that Man-bok has been walking to school from a faraway village. Man-bok explains her circumstances. Ms. Choi, however, imagines that this motion sickness explanation is just to hide that Man-bok’s family is destitute and is saving up what little money they have for the baby, leaving Man-bok to go to school without food or bus fare. That Man-bok has been chowing down on the sweets on Ms. Choi’s desk does not help matters. Ms. Choi asks to accompany Man-bok’s home…right then.
So Man-bok and Ms. Choi walk…and walk. Ms. Choi is not having a good time and the heel on one of her shoes breaks.
Ms. Choi survives the walk to Man-bok’s house and stays for dinner. Man-bok tells her parents that Ms. Choi has come because she had assumed that they could not afford to let Man-bok take the bus to school. Ms. Choi insists that this is a routine visit. When she brings up the length of the walk, Man-bok’s father counters that 3-hours was the minimum when he was young, and that Man-bok could use the time walking to learn English. His argument falls apart almost immediately when Man-bok’s mother gets him to admit that he took the bus to school. Man-bok chuckles at this, which leads to a shouting match between her and her father in front of Ms. Choi. Whether Ms. Choi notices how eager Man-bok’s father was to belittle his daughter at every opportunity, she does not vocalize it.
Man-bok walks Ms. Choi to the bus station. Ms. Choi apologizes for not believing Man-bok, but commends her for her walking abilities. She tells Man-bok that, studious or not, she can succeed at what she wants to do if she tries. They are about to part ways when Ms. Choi has an idea: maybe Man-bok can apply for track & field.
Man-bok shows up at track area and the coach tells Man-bok to give him a demonstration of her…walking. It seems so simple a request that Man-bok is perplexed by the whole thing, like he wants more than what he is asking for. But he is impressed, telling her that she is perfect for Race Walking. She has no idea what it is, but gets an application anyways.
Man-bok is filling it out in the…uh…locker room/equipment room, when an older student comes in. Su-ji snatches the application from Man-bok, notes that she had no previous athletic experience, and asks why the coach had accepted her. Before Man-bok can explain, the coach comes in and tells them that they will be race walking together. Su-ji is uneasy about this. And Man-bok still does not know what race walking is. I guess that she has not watched Malcolm in the Middle.
So, they go outside so that the coach can explain while Su-ji, the school’s only race walker, reluctantly provides a demonstration. Race walking is, of course, walking really fast. The rules are that only one foot can be in the air at any given time and the forward leg must not bend. And…uh…that’s it. While Su-ji quietly steams, the coach encourages Man-bok to give it a try, while also bluntly asking her whether Ms. Choi is single.
Man-bok tells Ji-hyun about race walking over their very short lunch. Ji-hyun asks if Man-bok has time for it, and recalls that she dropped cooking class after two sessions. Man-bok says that this will be different, but Ji-hyun remains doubtful.
Man-bok gets winded trying to jog around the track with the other kids. It could be that jogging is different than walking…or it could be that the other kids did not need to walk for two hours that morning as she did. A boy approaches Man-bok and…tells her that Freshman such as herself are in charge of tidying up and laundry. The boy, Jung-don, takes her inside and has her help him clean up. Apparently, he has had more talent in cleaning than in track.
Man-bok tells him that she is doing race walking, and he comments that she will be training with Suparta. Suparta? Su-jin + Sparta = Suparta. Apparently, Su-jin either does not appreciate that nickname or does not know about it. But it sort of fits. She had been a really fast runner in middle school, but injured herself during training. She could no longer run in running races, so race walking was her alternative. Su-jin is serious business.
The coach insists that Su-jin help teach Man-bok the race-walking ropes, arguing that Su-jin needs to work on her leadership skills anyways. And, besides, the racing qualifier is next month. So, Su-jin goes for a jog out by the sea, with Man-bok trailing behind. Man-bok sees an airplane in the sky and stops to pretend to capture it through her fingers. She tells an annoyed Su-jin that her wish will come true if she captures the plane 100 times. Su-jin figures that sports must have seemed like an easy alternative to an academic failure like Man-bok.
Later, Su-jin goes to see a doctor. She admits that she still feels pain in her ankle, which has not fully healed. The doctor reminds her that she had promised to quit track last year, that she would do something else. Su-jin says under her breath that she is too scared.
Man-bok is walking when she encounters her boyfriend, Hyo-gil, riding on his delivery motorcycle. They had met two years earlier when he delivered food to her house and…oh, wait. He is not her boyfriend, just an older guy whom she had been crushing on for the past two years, even though he does not remember her name. He invites her to ride on his motorcycle and her eagerness to get close to him overrides her good sense. Things seem tolerable for a bit, but she gets off at a red light to vomit.
Man-bok is asleep in class once again. The teacher asks for anyone to wake her up, but Ji-hyun tells him that Man-bok is on track. And, apparently, that is enough to prevent the teacher from trying to wake her up again.
Really, taking track seems to lift her spirits more. Man-bok is more eager to come to school on time. She race walks outside of school hours and is eventually able to keep up with the other track kids. And she…well, she tries to emulate Su-jin, much to Su-jin’s chagrin. Man-bok constantly tries to befriend Su-jin’s, despite Su-jin’s best efforts to avoid her.
One day, Man-bok asks Su-jin whether it is likely that she has a chance at the qualifier, since race walking does not have many participants. Su-jin says no, but Man-bok is able to annoy her enough to get her to say that there is a miniscule chance. As the qualifier draws closer, Man-bok trains and trains, imagining that she has a chance to compete and…maybe…even win?
So, yeah, this movie is some goofy fluff, taking a sports story template and injecting it with a whole lot of silliness. There are a few elements of the film that I deliberately left out, just to surprise you. Erm…I am not sure if one or two of those elements come off as thoughtlessly insensitive, but sometimes goofy comedies swing for the fences. And after the rough stories from the movies that I had talked about over the past few weeks and…perhaps the next few weeks…well, who am I to judge?
I do find it amusing in a meta sense that Man-bok, a character who gets majorly ill if she rides in any sort of vehicle, is played by Shim Eun-kyung, whom audiences would have seen three months earlier running onto a train and infecting everyone with a zombie virus.
Yeah, remember her? Same person.
The movie does kind of treat racewalking as kind of a joke, and I am not sure how accurate it is in terms of how it is perceived in South Korea, but it has been an Olympic sport for over 100 years. South Korea does not seem to have done particularly well in it, though. I don’t know. But, of course, a movie about race walking would have to be funny anyways. Even those outside of this movie who try to assure us that it is a valid sport acknowledge that it looks goofy.
The movie compounds that with Man-bok’s condition. No, the vomit is not as gross as it could have been, but there is quite a bit, at least at the beginning. And on top of that, Man-bok is…eh…not that bright. Aside from her not being particularly studious, she is also quite unobservant, at least when it comes to other people’s emotions. I cannot be certain whether she is supposed to have some sort of other condition, but it is implied that the motion sickness was the only thing different about her. Still, Shim kind of plays her with a sort of airiness that makes me wonder. Then again, it could just be that all that walking makes it difficult to focus. And perhaps she is just very awkward.
The movie does not really dwell that much on what having such a condition would do to a kid, especially once the walk to and from school becomes two hours. For sure, there are things would be difficult to do as Man-bok would get sick and other things that would be difficult do to a lack of time. It is not quite made clear how much time Man-bok spends training or when she gets home. When she was younger, her schoolmates would mock her for vomiting and she had no time when she entered high school, so perhaps socialization with other kids was difficult. There does seem to be that she does not really have any friends prior to joining track aside from her classmate Ji-hyun, whose only obvious connection with her is being paired up.
It does seem like that lack of connection is why Man-bok seems to cling hard to anyone whom she can, whether it be the hip-hop obsessed Hyo-gil (played by Lee jae-in of pop-rock band FT Island) who barely remembers her name or Su-jin. Su-jin does not really view her as a possible rival or someone who would steal her thunder. In fact, she might be happier spending time with Man-bok if doing so could incentivize her to up her game. But she does not see Man-bok as someone who takes anything seriously, and would only bring her down. After absorbing many insults from Su-jin, Man-bok finally fully commits to taking the sport and the competition seriously. And the movie sort of pivots along with her.
Indeed, the lighthearted goofy tone does sort of hide a more serious storyline that the youth of South Korea and other countries may relate to. Man-bok’s condition makes things bad enough for her, but her father gives her no support, putting her down at any opportunity and telling her that she is useless. It may not be the horror show that Ms. Choi had imagined, but…that is not good. Man-bok tries to keep it from getting to her and her mother tries to keep him from going too far, but the damage is already done. Ms. Choi is probably the first person to tell her that she might have the potential to be good at something. And there is the sense that you can learn to love something that you are good at doing. And if you love doing something, then you set your efforts at it and become better at it. Finally given something that she can actually do, Man-bok starts to embrace race walking. As a result, she becomes more focused and more driven. No, her grades may not necessarily go up much, but she is no longer totally aimless, doomed to a life of failure. Previously without a passion, she finds something that she can be passionate about.
The movie, however, also acknowledges that there is a dark side to this. Su-jin was hyper-competitive at an early age. And what did it get her? Injured. She is in race walking only because only because that injury made it impossible for her to compete in running competition. But even race walking is dangerous for her. Yet, her sense of worth seems to be wrapped up in her athletic competitiveness. Her identity is wrapped up in it. If she cannot race, then what good is she? Who is she? What else is there for her? South Korea, and other Asian countries, can be very competitive. There is a lot of pressure placed upon youths to succeed and be the best at whatever. What if this mindset proves to be no better than giving up? Why is Man-bok really doing this?
Uh…no, this movie is really funny and fun, I swear. I like it quite a lot…yeah.
WTF ASIA 154: Kya Dilli Kya Lahore (India: 2014, approx. 95-97 minutes)