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On the occasion of the Beijing games, we recount the best Asian films featuring Olympic sports.
Asian cinema is no stranger to competitive sports. Sun Yu's 1934 Shanghai classic Queen of Sports reminds audiences how much agile bodies (and some sexy short-shorts) can contribute to national welfare. Yi Wen's 1959 musical romp Spring Song proves that the ideal college girl is one who can sing a sweet song, but can also launch arrows into bulls-eyes and shoot hoops with the best of them. And Kon Ichikawa's 1965 documentary Tokyo Olympiad is one of the foundational works of film history, transforming the way we visualize the human mind and body.
Recent years have shown that the popularity of sports in Asian cinema has by no means abated. In those same years, Asian teams have excelled on the world's biggest sporting stage. In fact, since Sydney in 2000, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and especially mainland China have witnessed their programs' steady climb in medal counts. So, on the occasion of the Beijing games, we've compiled the ten best Asian films since 2000 that reference Olympic sports. Most are directly about competition, while others have passing mentions that end up being pivotal moments. To keep things simple, we're limiting ourselves to Olympic sports only (sorry, Lagaan), and to keep things exciting, only one film per sport.
Volleyball: The Iron Ladies (Youngyooth Thongkonthun, Thailand, 2000)
Based on a true story, The Iron Ladies is a comedy that follows the Thai men's volleyball team as it prepares to compete in the national championships. They're referred to as the "iron ladies" because the team is made up of mostly gay men, transsexuals, and drag queens. The film picked up ten awards over its long festival run (including the Thailand National Film Association award for supporting actor Chaicharn Nimpulsawasdi) and inspired a 2003 sequel.
Soccer: Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow, Hong Kong, 2001)
With Shaolin Soccer, perennial funnyman Stephen Chow slide-tackles the sports and martial arts genres with some Looney Tunes special effects and a heavy dose of the over-the-top. The showdown between tradition and science has never been more convincing -- or hilarious. For better or worse, it sparked a cycle of Chinese hybrid sports films like Kung Fu Dunk.
Synchronized swimming: Waterboys (Shinobu Yaguchi, Japan, 2001)
Take a bunch of male Japanese TV drama stars, put them in swim trunks, have them dance together in water, and we've got the Japanese film Waterboys. The film earned eight nominations at the Japanese Academy Awards and also potentially earned a spot in history as the only synchronized swimming film that makes good use of an evil dolphin trainer.
Ping Pong: Ping Pong (Fumihiko Sori, Japan, 2002)
One athlete needs to tame his pompous attitude to learn how to become a real champion, while the other's perpetual brooding doesn't satisfy crowds who are looking for a sports hero to rally behind. A ping pong rivalry between best friends, played by actors Yosuke Kubozuka and Arata, anchors Japan's 2002 comedy, Ping Pong, as we watch them face off against the top table tennis competitors in their high school league.
Boxing: Crying Fist (Ryoo Seung-wan, South Korea, 2005)
A good cry: because Ryoo Seung-wan's boxing tale leaves no emotions unturned in its exploration of a broken former champ set out to win back his sense of self-worth. Some good fists: because Ryoo spares no one with his gritty depictions of macabre beat-downs, both in the ring and out. And for melodrama and full-bodied violence, there's nobody better than actor Choi Min-sik, who fills out the role with trademark intensity.
Gymnastics: Jump! Boys (Lin Yu-hsien, Taiwan, 2005)
More effectively than any film on this list, Jump! Boys captures the underside of competitive sports in Asia today. From the headache, to the heartache, to the muscle-ache, this documentary about a gymnastic coach and his little students takes very seriously what it means to be number two in a cutthroat society where sports gold is useless, let alone silver. What makes the film work though, is the deft way Lin Yu-Hsien veils his commentary beneath the cute faces and the inspirational melodrama.
Archery: The Host (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2006)
The Host is by no means a movie about archery. But it does have an archer (played by APA fave Bae Doo-na) and there is an important scene where archery plays a critical role. And if, as many have claimed, The Host is about the consequences of American military presence, and if archery is practically the national sport in Korea, then that means the movie is about... well you figure it out.
Field Hockey: Chak De! India (Shimit Amin, India, 2007)
In his Filmfare-winning performance, Shah Rukh Khan plays a former hockey World Cup player who decides to coach women's field hockey. Used to being chastised -- as he missed a critical stroke that cost Team India a championship against Pakistan seven years ago -- the new coach understands the struggle to be taken seriously and the ever-important need to put personal and regional prejudices aside and to unite as one. Chak de India!
Badminton: Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan, India, 2007)
Om Shanti Om could be called a romance (complete with Shah Rukh Khan's hypnotic stares), a comedy (parodies galore), or an action thriller (as there is often lots of fire and the need to save people from it). But Om Shanti Om is essentially a movie about making movies, which allows the film (and its stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone) to juggle even more genres: the western, the superhero movie, and... the sports flick. Although the moment lasts just 37 seconds (starting at 3:18 in the above video clip), it's hard to forget the cheeky badminton choreography in the "Dhoom Taana" number -- and the fact that Deepika's father Prakash Padukone is a champion badminton player in India just makes it all the more perfect.
Handball: Forever the Moment (Yim Soon-rye, South Korea, 2008)
The English title is sappy, the Korean title ("The Best Moment of Our Lives") even more so. But perhaps the moment is ripe for sap. Based on real events from the 2004 Athens games, Forever the Moment comes four years later, just ahead of the Beijing Olympics, crystallizing the mood of a nation as it retakes the international sporting spotlight. Armed with another solid performance by the great Moon So-ri, as well as the promise of being the world's first handball movie, Forever the Moment dominated the box office in the midst of the domestic industry's worst months in years.
Date Posted: 8/22/2008