[Movie Review] Underdogs Take Off on a heartwarming Olympic journey
Every two years, we marvel anew at the heights that the human body can reach through training and discipline (or simply complain about the preemptions of our favorite shows). In every Olympic season, however casual a viewer you might be, you can’t deny that it’s always the underdogs who capture the collective imagination. In real life and in sports movies, we love to root for the underdogs, especially when the challenges they face carry meaning even beyond winning and losing.
Take Off (2009) is based on the true story of South Korea’s first ever ski jump team, who attempt to make their way to the 1998 Nagano Olympics with little governmental support and barely any money, a ragtag group of has-been alpine skiers wrangled into shape by their grumpy coach. They have little to lose and agree to be on the team for various reasons related to their own desperate situations, which have nothing to do with actual love of the sport.
What primarily sells this movie is its cast, because in any movie with this type of premise, the losers have to be lovable or at least interesting so that we can root for them. Here we start with a group of people who are so unlikeable—apart from lead character Bob/Heon-tae (Ha Jung-woo)—that we probably wouldn’t give them a chance if they weren’t played by actors we’ve loved in other roles. Bob is an American adoptee who has returned to Korea to find his birth mother. A former alpine skier on the U.S. Olympic team, he finds himself convinced by Coach Bang’s (Sung Dong-il) rather mean-spirited argument that his mother won’t have any interest in meeting him unless he has something to show for himself—like a gold medal.
So Bob and Coach Bang travel around gathering the rest of what eventually makes up the team, all former alpine skiers who left the sport due to doping scandals (Kim Dong-wook), the hope of exemption from military duty (Kim Ji-suk), and family opposition (Choi Jae-hwan). There’s also Kim Ji-suk’s developmentally disabled kid brother (Lee Jae-eung), who won’t be dissuaded from following his hyung everywhere he goes, even if it’s the top of a ski jump ramp. Lee, who starts out as a cute and comedic satellite character, later plays a moving role in the team’s journey, and the actor does a wonderful job.
They’re somewhat less than inspiring, but what they initially lack in heroism they make up for nicely with the awkward hijinks that ensue once they embark on this near-impossible endeavor. Ski jumping at first seems to them a weird and terrifying plunge to certain death or dismemberment, and most of the comedy comes from the makeshift practice methods they have to come up with while they wait for the government to build them a proper ramp. (This includes balancing on each other’s heads and gluing skis to the roof of their van, which is as delightful to watch as it sounds.)
The movie does a great job of balancing on the edge of humor and pathos. This group of men are so pathetic and downtrodden that the humor of what they’re attempting to pull off, bickering and tussling, provides a needed respite from the rather grim circumstances. Yet there’s a warmth to the movie even when the teammates are swearing and punching each other that never allows the joke to be on them—instead it’s a type of dark humor that anyone who’s been at the end of their rope with recognize. And that means that it doesn’t at all undercut the seriousness of the challenge these five men are facing, or the consequences that await them if they fail.
At the heart of the story of the team, and their journey to becoming a family, is Bob, who starts out hating the mother and the country that he feels sold him off as a child. Yet he still attempts to find and contact his mother, and ends up representing that same country on an international stage. The Korean title of the movie is “Gukga Daepyo,” which translates to “National Team”: the athletes who represent the country at competitions like the Olympics.
Part of what Bob and his team have to come to terms with is whether they really want to play this game, whether they want to commit themselves and risk bodily injury for a country that in many ways has failed them. They all live on the fringes of Korean society, and becoming members of the ski jump team would be a rehabilitation for them, a way for them to hold their heads up proudly again in front of others. But more importantly, it would be a radical act of love and sacrifice toward their country that they may not have the courage for, and it’s a decision each man must make on his own. This adds a moving, if unsubtle, individual element to the already bulletproof trope of the underdog team facing ridiculous odds.
Technically, the movie does a great job with the ski jump scenes—they actually built a real ramp for the movie, and the actors underwent three months of training before shooting started. The integration of the physical set and visual effects is done quite effectively, giving the audience a daunting sense of scale and height, and thrilling jump sequences. The music is gorgeous, if at times a little over the top. But I can forgive the soundtrack some excess, because it gives us the transcendent “Butterfly” by Loveholics, which in my opinion is the best sports and/or life anthem ever. (Also used as the background music for that iconic scene in The Best Hit when Cha Tae-hyun was trying to send Yoon Shi-yoon back to 1993. By pushing him down the stairs on a sled.)
The movie was successful enough in its theatrical run that it inspired a sequel, 2016’s Take Off 2, which is only loosely connected, as it tells the story of the first ever national South Korean women’s hockey team, one of whom was a North Korean defector. It would be interesting to watch today, when a unified Korean team is playing at the Pyeongchang Olympics under the watchful eye of the world (and North Korean officials, who are vigilantly monitoring their delegation in case of any defection).
As for the original Take Off, it’s ultimately a story about failing, badly and repeatedly, but having the courage to get back up again, even if no one else believes in you. Maybe with a little help from your friends. What it lacks in originality, it makes up in spades with heart and humor, and I won’t lie—I had a couple of tears in my eyes by the end. I won’t tell you if they eventually got their medals (though I suppose it’s a matter of historical record), but what mattered most for me was the journey they took together, and what becoming a team meant for who they became. Sentimental, I know, but that exactly suits my mood this Olympic season.