Gukga Daepyo/Take Off - Damn You, Japan!

Alliance Atlantis
Duration: 137min
Category: comedy
Available: On DVD
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As you get all geared-up for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, you may, or more likely may not, want to see if you can get a-hold of this “inspirational, inspired by a true story” Korean ski-jumping movie.

Sounds odd? Well no more so than the idea of a Jamaican Bob-sledding movie, and we were treated to that a decade and a half back. In fact, if you missed-out on Cool Runnings, you could get pretty much the same experience through Take Off – minus Jamaican stereotyping, John Candy and the 1988 Calgary nostalgia.

In case you’re curious, Take-Off is indeed based on a true story – insofar as it’s a fact that South Korea sent a ski-jumping contingent to the Olympics for the first time for the Nagano games in 1998. I bothered to look-it up so that you don’t have to. The rest of this “true” story, is – well, let’s call it stretching the truth.

I understand that Koreans are a dramatic people, but as I watched the dramatic events unfold in Take Off, I wondered how many of the Korean audience members would actually buy into half of this stuff. Let me ruin a few surprises for you…

The team is formed by a coach who is trying to outrun a troubled past. He assembles a bunch of rag-tag nobodies who engage in pratfall fish-out-of-water comedy as they try to summon the will and skill to ski down a 120 meter tower and launch themselves into the air for double that length. Would it surprise you to know that these guys train with sub-par equipment, that they struggle to gain the respect of their countrymen, parents, their peers, and that though there is some infighting and personality clashes, they form a strong bond in the end? No, it wouldn’t.

Now I’m not going to crap on a movie for being optimistic, but even by clichéd sports movie standards, this stuff is pretty out of control. When a director, whose best-known work is a romantic fat girl comedy called “200 ponds Beauty”, you know that taking artistic license is going to lead down a different road.

If you are a Cool Running’s fan from way back, try to imagine that Sanka Coffe (Doug E. Doug) is a troubled nightclub attended with a thing for passed-out girls. Imagine also that the “strong guy”, Yul Brenner is parentless, but uses what strength he has to care for both his dementia-suffering, teddy-bear-making grandmother, and his younger, retarded brother (I use the word “retarded”, because that’s what I read in the subtitles).

But this cast isn’t colorful enough. Let’s throw-in an adopted Korean-American former Alpine racer who struggles with his birth country because they sold him and his sister for 10,000 dollars. He’s trying to find his birth mother – by getting into the Olympics and hoping she sees him on TV. His birth mother, by the way, works as a mute spinster in a kind of Cinderella-like relationship with some rich lady and her wicked daughter – so wicked that she takes the enslaved birth mother grocery shopping and drops jars of food on the floor just to watch the old lady stoop-over and clean it up.

This is starting to sound like a John Waters film, but stay with me. The real sad story here comes in the form of the last member of the team, who works at his father’s restaurant, impregnates a Chinese girl (this is explained as being taboo), and struggles with his relationship with his father.

The coach? Well he’s somewhat bumbling and easily frustrated. Oh, and he has a grown-daughter who sells jade mats to rich people and pretends that she has AIDS.

Turns out not a lot in this story is actually true and the actual ski-jumpers upon whom this story is based were somewhat embarrassed by the film when it was released earlier this summer. Truth is, all of this zany-as-hell character set-up is really just the comparatively tame ingredient for the plot that they inhabit. Yes, they make it to the Olympics. No, they don’t win. Yes, they manage to inspire a nation and the world. No, this movie isn’t really trying for voracity.

What Take Off is trying for however is a new high water mark in shameless tear-jerking. The ski-jumping scenes, through well-hidden CGI and actual jumping footage, actually do work to create some genuine thrill. It’s too bad that they don’t rise above the moments of kick-in-the-face embarrassment that come near the end with increasing frequency. Tears fall on cue, abusive fathers are forgiven, HIV-infected girlfriends are cured, mixed-blood babies are accepted by in-laws, dementia-suffering grandmothers have a moment of clarity, and… oh yeah, the Koreans surprise people in the ski-jumping event. All of this happens in approximately a 5 minute span.

But that’s really just the beginning. Take Off also provides an opportunity for this Korean film-maker to take a shot at Japan. When the last Korean jumper is about to take his run, a fog rolls-in to Nagano, and the jump is postponed for safety sake, but then – NOOOOOOO! It’s back on! “How can Japan do this?”, lament the Korean sports-casters. Cue music, the hush and held-breath of fans, and the Korean coach performing a slow-motion run to the judges’ booth to cancel the jump like he’s Mel Gibson in Gallipoli. Sadly, it’s too late - Yul Brenner jumps, and breaks his leg in the bad conditions.

“Damn, you, Japan!” says the Korean commentator. But wait – I forgot to tell you that Yul Brenner’s retarded and underage brother was named to the team as an alternate at the beginning of the story, mostly so that he’d stop providing handicapped pratfall jokes during the training sessions. Who’s the smart coach now?

Here is a movie where all of the above shameless choices simply weren’t enough. No – they had to provide this film with a climax in the form of, forgive my lack of subtlety, throwing the "retard" down the hill. Prepare to be offended.

But that’s the level of subtlety we’re dealing with here. ‘Tis a shame, too - I'm sure that somewhere in the real life story of these jumpers, there was enough real human drama to create a story worth watching without resorting to the cringe-inducing fabrications and mugging on display here.

Review By: Dave Gagnier

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