The new sports drama “As One” tells the story of how in 1991, for the purposes of the World Table Tennis Championships, North Korea and South Korea reunited, putting forward a single team in the hopes of preventing the Chinese from winning a ninth consecutive title. (What does it say about the state of international geo-politics that in a story featuring North Korea, China can still function as an all-purpose villain?)
The top female players from each nation (Korean stars Ha Ji-won and Bae Doo-na), previously fierce opponents, are thrown together as teammates and doubles partners. At first they don’t mesh, either as players or personalities, but they come to realize that their sport means more to them than politics.
The debut feature from director Moon Hyun-sung, “As One” is more invested in the politics and personalities then the game itself — Moon doesn’t quite capture the electric, close-quarters excitement of play at this level. He favors an overhead shot of the players and the table that captures the game’s geometry but not its speed or intimacy.
In the film’s wittiest turn, Korean broadcast announcers during the finals are contrasted with the Chinese announcers seated next to them, highlighting the biases, both purposeful and unconscious, that anyone exhibits toward their home side.
With the Olympics just around the corner, “As One” is a reminder of the world-stage dramas that can play themselves out through sports. Pretty straightforward as an inspirational sports movie, it does provide an unusual glimpse into the perceptions and interactions between North and South Korea.
“As One.” No MPAA rating; in Korean and Japanese with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. At CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles.