Seen in Jeonju

Sports in Korean Films

5th February 2012

This weekend the Superbowl is being held in the USA and I, being an American, am supposed to care.. especially since, being from New England, I am expected to care for the Patriots. Well, I don’t care.  I think I have seen two football games in my life… both were Seahawks games while I was in Seattle. I prefer the real football aka soccer.  I find it exciting, the players interesting and I love the fact that the clock doesn’t stop everytime somebody falls down. (I hate that about basketball too.. the clock says there are ten minutes left and you wind up unable to change the channel for another 40 minutes…because someone else in the room wants to see the end of the game).  Anyway, I was skyping with family members who were talking about the upcoming game and my mind wandered to Korean movies (as always) and I wondered when the first sports film was made and which sport was highlighted.  When considering films I did not concern myself with movies that simply showed a sport, but ones where an athlete or game was the main focus of the story. I had three suspicions about what the first sport in Korean film might be.  I thought it would come down to Baseball, Soccer or Boxing.  While searching I came across a few suprises.  The earliest sport committed to film in Korea was Tennis in a documentary made in 1924 entitled The National Women’s Tennis Tournament that screened in July of that year.  But I was not planning to include non-fiction or news reels, just fiction with actors playing the roles of athletes. Here is what I found:

6720rocking horse and girlBaseball:  The sport of baseball has been played in Korea for more than a century. If you have been following the Independent posts, you will have seen that baseball was being played informally by the American residents of Seoul in 1896. And in the past few years, there have been many examples of baseball-themed movies.. more than any other sport.   Glove, Scout, Superstar Mr. Gam,Perfect Game, Rolling Stars are some recent examples…and three of those listed were just in the last year.  But when was the first.  The earliest I could find was suprisingly recent. It was made in 1976 by Lee Won-se and was called Rocking Horse and Girl (pictured right).  You would never be able to tell from the pictured advertisement nor the poster of the second baseball movie that same year, Prayer of a Girl, that these movies had anything to do with sports.  In fact, the game took a back seat to the romance aspect of the stories.  For example, the following is the plot summary of Rocking Horse and Girl.  Sang-gyu is a college baseball player in the midst of crisis.  He is in a career-threatening slump. However, he meets and falls in love with Jeong-eun who becomes the center of his life. However, he proves to be unlucky in love as well as baseball for Jeong-eun is suffering from a progressive form of anemia and is likely to die without regular transfusions or a marrow transplant. Sang-gyu is anxious to help and is willing to donate, but that would mean he would have to miss a major baseball tournament and that would damage any chance of a sports career he has. Jeong-eun opts to disappear without a word. She returns to watch the big game which is won by Sang-gyu, but Jeong-eun dies in the stands during before the final inning.

68-115~2barefoot dreamsSoccer:  The international game of futbol has far fewer movies about it in Korean cinema than baseball, but its first game was nearly a decade earlier.  Pictured left is the poster of Barefoot Glory helmed by the famous and prolific director, Kim Soo-yong.  The story is also more directly related to the game of soccer than the first baseball film was to sport.  It is the story of Joo-yeong who starts training a group of orphans to play soccer and compete in an national match for children.  But the children are extremely poor, they cannot even afford to buy shoes and their ball is made out of strips of cloth.  They lose game after game while training for the big match, but the coach never gives up on them and both coach and team grow closer together.  Eventually, they are able to enter the national games and win.  More than 40 years later, we were given a movie with nearly the exact same plot from director Kim Tae-gyun, Barefoot Dreams (pictured right), except that it was set in East Timor.  Soccer films have had their share of melodrama as well. The 1972 film Mother Love was the story of a woman who was slowly losing her eyesight and her son is accepted onto the national soccer team and her sight fails completely while watching his big game on television, but she is happy because she has something to be proud of.

vanished dreamBoxing:  There are many Korean movies filmed in the 1960s that had scenes of people attending boxing matches as a first or second date.  Without looking anything up I can name two off hand, Early Rain (one of my favorite movies) and Barefoot Youth.  But these were not about athletes and the boxing scenes are just stock footage.  In fact, the first boxing movie comes early than these 1960-something films.  It was in 1959, that director No Pil’s movie, Vanished Dream, hit theaters starring the two-fisted, action hero Choi Moo-ryong.  In the movie, he plays a boxer who has high hopes of entering the Olympics.  In fact, he seems like he is a success in many parts of his life. He is content with his choice of careers and in love with a beautiful young woman whose purity is a shining light giving him hope.  But, that virginal purity is all an act for his benefit. His girlfriend actually works in a bar and has quite the reputation among the men in the surrounding neighborhood.  When the boxer learns of this, he is devestated and turns to drink for comfort, much to the chagrin of his coach.  However, with persist urgings and encouragement, the coach is able to pull him out of the depths of despair and eventually the boxer does indeed make it to the Olympics. This movie was followed fairly quickly by several other boxing films, but this remains the first.

But was this the very first sports film?  Unfortunatly, I cannot answer that because there is some lost information.  I found a second potential sports film released in 1959 called Angel In White and the Hunchback.  However, the release date of this movie is not known, so I do not know which film came first.  I may be able to find it later, but I have not been through the Chosun Ilbo of the 1950s yet.  Oh– and the sport that may have been featured in that film was rugby.  Again, with a lot of information missing on the movie, I do not know if the game was actually featured or if it was just incidental to the story.  What I know is that the main character is now called a hunchback because of a life-changing injury he suffered in the game. 

I looked at other sports to be sure I had my bases covered. Basketball movies came quite late in Korea and they have always been rare. Track and Field had its first movie back in 1965 and even Dodgeball had a film made, albeit a children’s film (Shoot Fireworks, Tonkey!) in 1993.

Because so much is unknown about The Angel in White and the Hunchback, I will dub Vanished Dream as the first sports-themed movie made in Korea.

final showdownAddition– Taekwondo: Matt in the comment section asked about Taekwondo.  Seeing how it  is the national sport of Korea, I really should have included it in my initial writing, but while I had researched it, I had left it out.  I will correct that oversight now.  When starting to look for Taekwondo movies, I thought I would have to wade through dozens of martial arts films that have someone training in taekwondo, but were not actually sports movies (any more than Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master could be considered a sports film. However, while that would have been the case in the 70s when Hong Kong-style action movies were popular, I was lucky.  The first Taekwondo film was made in 1967 called The Final Showdown.  Directed by Kim Mook, it tells the story of two rival training schools with different techniques of study, claiming to be the most authentic and pure form of taekwondo.  One of the school’s master students goes into the mountains and concentrates on his training and later returns to participate in a match, soundly beating the rival school and earning the title of True Taekwondo for his gym. While this is the first Taekwondo-themed movie, Boxing still retains the title of being the first sport in Korean film.

2 Responses to “Sports in Korean Films”

  1. Matt Says:

    Great post! I watched Lee Jang-Ho’s Baseball Team recently (I think the film was released in 1986) and I was wondering if there were other older baseball movies: now I know! Because Chun Doo-hwan created the pro-baseball and pro-soccer leagues in the early 1980s I would have guessed that baseball and soccer films started in the 1980s, so it’s interesting to see that there are actually much older films about these sports.

    One question: since Taekwondo is in the Olympics I think it’s only fair to consider it a sport. What is the oldest Taekwondo film?

  2. Tom Says:

    I just updated the post to include Taekwondo, which I would have guessed to have appeared in movies much earlier than it did.