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[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.

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I watched this movie while I am going to Korea in 2011. I like it I think i like this first one than the second movie. Seeing that this is based on a true story and the cast give justice to their role. I thought they will be having a second movie with the same cast but it became a girl version. Recommended movie...

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Speaking of underdogs, a South Korean just won Gold for the first time ever in the skeleton! And he’s a cutie too! Maybe a movie to look forward to in his future!
https://www.google.com/amp/www.bbc.co.uk/sport/amp/winter-olympics/42980604

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I saw! Such a CUTIE. I'm sure we'll be seeing him on variety shows in the near future, the camera looooves his face, and Korean TV loves gold medalists.

(I couldn't watch though, that tiny sled is a death trap and it's terrifying to see them hurtling down that track.)

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And he loves IRON MAN! That helmet tho! He’s PERFECT for variety!

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Hahaha agreed!

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Oh! Excellent review. I officially need to watch this movie. It sounds amazing! ^^

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Hope to see more movie reviews on dramabeans! Korean films are my go-to when there's a dry spell in dramaland.

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Can y'all do movie recaps because i dont like watching I'm always so busy. But i really want to know what happens. Please put it in to consideration i would a movie cap of real

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Thanks for your review of TAKE OFF, Laica!

Every once in a while I'm in the mood for a sports flick, and you've picked the perfect timing to mention this one. Plucky underdogs are my catnip. You had me at Kim Ji-suk on skis. ;-)

And thank you so much for that link to "Butterfly." I wondered about the music that played as manager Gwang-jae attempted to send idol Hyun-jae back down the staircase to 1993. The lyrics are so apropos for the missing singer who's finally beginning to grow up. Knowing it was used in this film about ski jumping only ads to my meta enjoyment.

Here are the English subtitles (click on CC), which are beautiful, and well-suited to both stories:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeMM406FIGU

A couple of other sports shows with underdogs come to mind:

Two-episode TV movie PUCK! (2016), a strange brew of loansharking and collegiate ice hockey with an underdog team and a downtrodden debt collector (Lee Kwang-soo).

Film LIKE A VIRGIN, with Ryu Deok-hwan as a student intent on transgender surgery, whose aptitude for ssireum (Korean traditional wrestling) enables him to win the prize money to attain his goal. Includes the late Lee Eon, who participated in ssireum in real life, in one of the few performances of his lamentably brief acting career. (Having been a scorekeeper for my college's wrestling team, it was fascinating to see how ssireum differs from its American scholastic and collegiate equivalents.)

Drama special YEONGDEOK WOMEN'S WRESTLING TEAM (2011) is a tale with heart focusing on a female traditional Korean wrestling team. As with LIKE A VIRGIN, I found the wrestling footage interesting. The main story line dealt with a pair of sisters abandoned by their father, and a down-on-his-luck former wrestling champ-turned-model who takes a job to coach a rural town's women's team who are preparing to enter the national championships. I wish the show were longer, as there wasn't much time to flesh out the characters. Even so, it was a blast seeing ssireum, which has been on the wane for a long time.

Film THE FOUL KING (2000) had some very funny scenes. The poor brow-beaten bank clerk was always being put in a headlock by his assistant manager. He took up pro wrestling (not to be confused with ssireum!) in an effort to learn how to break free of the headlocks, but in the end could not overcome his boss. But he seemed to be happy learning to wrestle, and he exceeded the required length of time in the ring against his opponent, who may have been the top-rated guy just back from Japan. For a brief time, the protagonist was at least able to give payback to the thugs who had beaten him up earlier.

Drama PUNCH aka BEAT (2003) features Joo Jin-mo and Shin Min-ah as a pair of boxers. With all the chaebol heirs running around, these two are the underdogs. Persistence in the face of tragedy is one of the themes.

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Yes, it's such a wonderful song, and the music and lyrics work perfectly together - it's so tear-inducingly inspiring without being saccharine at all!

Thanks for all the recs! Though I don't know if I could watch Lee Eon in anything now without being a sobbing mess. There's also As One, which I considered reviewing before I settled on this one. I haven't seen it but it has a great cast!

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The image of a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly, emerging from its chrysalis, and finally taking flight is so appropriate to the transformations of the characters in both productions. In Hyun-jae's case, the shining idol learns from his past and continues to work -- but behind the scenes.

I'm a sucker for second chances and redemption. I'll have to watch TAKE OFF, even though my own attempts at skiing were nerve-wracking. ;-)

I understand your reluctance to watch LIKE A VIRGIN. I originally tuned in for Ryu Deok-hwan after seeing his turn in FAITH. I wasn't expecting to go so ga-ga for ssireum, but the wrestling nut in me made her presence known after decades of hiatus. It was interesting to learn the philosophy behind ssireum, which has to do with balance and cooperation with one's opponent. Lee Eon did a great job imparting it to his team mates. So I considered watching it a way of honoring his spirit. The other actors all learned ssireum for the movie well enough to rate as amateurs. -- There is one scene in which RDH demonstrates his impressive dance moves to one of his team mates. It's worth the price of admission.

Thanks for the pointer to AS ONE. It sounds like a dandy film, and with Ha Ji-won to boot. One more for my to-watch list. ;-)

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Hope you enjoy!

And that's a lovely way to think about it. May he rest in peace.

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Hi Laica, hope all is well. Thanks for the movie review! This sounds like something I'd totally watch!

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I was wracking my brains to recall another film, and finally dredged it up: FOREVER THE MOMENT (2008), an account of the Korean women's handball team and their journey to the 2004 Summer Olympics. I haven't seen it yet, but noticed it listed on Netflix, and will give it a look.

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I watched FOREVER THE MOMENT shortly after posting the above message. It was a good, uplifting sports film. As one reviewer noted, it was told from the standpoint of women who had family responsibilities and social expectations to contend with -- which stood in contrast to the coaches and officials who were not burdened with such baggage. Because of this, it was that much more difficult for older female athletes to make it to the national team, let alone the Olympics.

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