Friday, June 1, 2012

When ping-pong diplomacy stirred Korea

TOKYO - Two decades have passed since the end of the Cold War, but Korea still remains divided at the 38th parallel. Without having signed a peace treaty after the Korean War ended in 1953, North and South Korea are still technically at war.

For Pyongyang, the head of its neighboring state is a key target in its smear campaigns. In recent months, North Korean state media has even stepped up its rhetoric against the "traitorous" South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, branding him a "rabid dog" or a "rat" or a "tiger moth".

Meanwhile, on May 5 - Children's Day - Lee likened the North to a "bad and disobedient child" for ignoring voices in the international community calling for a halt to its launch of a long-range rocket last month.

Though North Korea is ramping up the war of words amid suspicions it is gearing up for a third nuclear test , young people in Seoul seem not too interested in North-South issues. They hardly feel a sense of solidarity and kinship with North Korea in their daily lives.

Wanting to make a difference in this regard and raise questions about such mutual mistrust within the same race, Moon Hyun-sung has made the movie known as As One in English and KOREA in Korean. Moon's directorial debut, the film hit theaters in South Korea on May 3.

Based on a real event, the film retells how South and North Korea formed a unified national sports team for the 41st world table tennis championships held in Chiba, near Tokyo in 1991.

Defying expectations, the joint team beat the most likely champions, China, which was trying to win the world title for the ninth consecutive year.

"I thought the only beautiful event in North-South relations was the story of those athletes [in the table tennis championships in 1991]," said Moon of his motivations to make film at a sneak preview in Chiba on April 20. "I have been interested in table tennis since my childhood and I was a fan of Hyun Jung-hwa." Hyun is the legendary South Korean female table tennis player on whom the movie is centered around.

The film is not just a sports flick or underdog's tale, rather it's closer to famous South Korean movies Shiri and JSA, which focused on human relationships between the South and the North. It draws on strong Korean national sentiment and revives North-South solidarity by dramatizing a human-interest story of the top athletes of the two nations, who had great conflicts, tensions and suspense during the 46 days when the team was temporarily formed for the tournament.

In the movie, one North Korean male player became subject to serious punishment by the ruling Korean Workers' Party (KWP), simply because he received a name card from the team coach of a Western team. North Korea's dominant party viewed it as an asylum bid.

Also, North Korea's athletes were forcibly ordered to leave Chiba and go back to Pyongyang immediately by the KWP just one day before their final match with China, because the government's "minders," or surveillance agents, who always escorted their athletes, said the players had become too immersed in Western culture, drinking alcohol and interacting with South Korean players privately.

Two of South Korea's du jour marquee actresses in their early 30s enrich a heartwarming masterpiece based on a true story. Ha Ji-won, a sexy action star who is often compared with American actress Angelina Jolie, played the role of South Koreans national sports heroine Hyun Jung-hwa. And actress Bae Doo-na, known for her sublime performances, represents North Korea's top female table tennis player Li Bun-hui.

Asked whether the movie would have an impact on young South Koreans, who are often indifferent about relations with the North, Ha said, "I was very impressed by the process of how the two became one in the 46 days. I think the young people will be also impressed by it."

Bae echoed Ha's views. "It's true the younger generation are not interested in North Korea, but I believe this movie could change things," said Bae, who skillfully recreated the blank expressions of the North's top player and uses North Korean language in the movie.

Thanks to South Korean table tennis player Hyun Jung-hwa's actual coaching, the portrayal of the athletes is unerringly accurate. Ha said she practiced table tennis 12 hours a day for a month in a sweltering gymnasium.

It's notable that behind the success of the unified Korean team was the late Ichiro Ogimura, a former Japanese table tennis player who visited South Korea 20 times and North Korea 14 times for negotiations to help realize the much-anticipated Korean joint team. He was president of the International Table Tennis Federation and died in 1994. Without Ogimura, this movie would have never had a tale to tell.

In some respects the film reminds of the "ping pong diplomacy" in the early 1970s, which saw the exchange of table tennis players between the United States and the People's Republic of China. This marked a thaw in US-China relations that paved the way for a visit to Beijing by president Richard Nixon.

Perhaps it would be asking too much to expect KOREA to have such a far-reaching impact as a thaw in ties between North and South Korea, bit its a small step in the right direction.

KOREA, directed by Moon Hyun-sung
Reviewed by Kosuke Takahashi

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