Film, Film Review, Uncategorized

REVIEW: ROAD TO BOSTON (2023) dir. Kang Je-kyu

Screens Saturday 6/8 @ MFA


After liberation from the Japanese following World War II, South Korea’s athletic associations confronted the extraneous bureaucracies of global colonialism. Their athletic achievements in international competitions in occupation belonged, as far as the international community cared, to Japan. The relevant international authorities required South Korea to have an official record at international competitions before allowing them to compete in the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. Road to Boston tells the story of marathoner Suh Yun-bok (Im Si-wan) and his senior coach turned surprise teammate Sohn Kee-chung (Ha Jung-woo) as they compete in the 1947 Boston International Marathon. 

Incredibly, the athletic drama — including a stray dog that causes the five-foot one-inch Suh to fall while in first place(!) — stays close to real life. Director Kang Je-kyu (Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War) has one of the greatest benefits a sports filmmaker can be blessed with: the subject material of one of history’s great sporting events. Since I’d wager non-Korean Americans know absolutely nothing of the 1948 marathon, I will refrain from spoiling the details of the outcomes. I do so not because of any genre trope subversion or anything of that sort but only because the magnitude of the victory feels so outstanding that it will dumbfound the viewer as to how Suh’s race is not more common knowledge amongst sporters. In the marathon, which is, regrettably, the only outstanding athletic action in the film, the scales rhythmically tip back and forth between victory and defeat while still staying true to the facts of the event. Road to Boston succeeds exactly where King Richard failed: by actually having swings of momentum. 

Politics have been with international sporting competitions from the beginning. That’s basically what the Olympics is: politique and soft power opportunity. Kang doesn’t let this tradition slip by. His new film is just as much a political film as a running one. Suh’s coach, Sohn, held the Olympic record for the marathon at just 2 hours 29 minutes 19.2 seconds, though his record belonged to Japan since he wrote their flag, even if obfuscated by a laurel, to the irk of Japanese officials, at the Berlin Olympics where he won gold. 

As Suh comments to a friend early on, after liberation the Japanese flags have only been replaced by American ones. Occupation persists with a whiter face. The production design in the Korean scenes hammers this point home. Whether it’s the presence of American movie posters, the Star-spangled Banner in the background, or even the American military, there is a clear villain and it’s no longer the Japanese. When the running team lands in the United States and are handed American uniforms, the continuity of the occupation becomes unmissable. 

The best scene apart from the big race takes place in a press room with the Korean team making the case to represent their country. They point to the legacy of Boston as a symbol of independence and national self-determination and dramatically return their jerseys. The scene is accompanied by a swelling, ascending melody that’s not easy to come by these days. Again, Kang doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but he loads every trope and genre convention to maximum firepower and lets the consequences play themselves out. Unfortunately, this approach also has its shortcomings. Just before this moving display of theatrical patriotism and effective rhetoric, the reporters pose a series of utterly idiotic questions to the Korean team, including but not limited to whether or not Korea is a country of its own and an inquiry into whether they speak Japanese or Chinese. The Korean War was still a few years away, but this level of geographical ignorance is comical in how far it falls short. I was reminded of that awful genre of TikToks where Americans are asked to name cities or countries around the world starting with certain letters and fall so short that their moronic display has to be performative. Americans, especially in the 1940s, had and have a tendency to be racist and ignorant, but this press conference imagines new levels of idiocy that I’m not sure exist. 

In addition to the politics and sports, Road to Boston delights a bit in fish-out-of-water and defacing Americans humor. In one of the funniest scenes I can remember in a historical sports film, when the team goes to the United States, Suh washes his face with the toilet water thinking it was meant for convenient bathing. Some of the humor works to make plain common American racist attitudes toward Koreans, such as when someone on a flight comments about kimchi being stinky or when their Korean-American local host advises them not to drink the drinks in their hotel fridge because “everything but the air costs money here.” I also found one of the nameless Americans reference to Coca-Cola as “liquid America” simultaneously funny and poignant. The scene reminded me of the conclusion to Fritz Lang’s American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950), where Coke becomes (ironically?) linked with freedom and the Platonic ideal of the United States. It’s also worth considering that both Lang and Kang are non-American filmmakers, on two different sides of the 20th century, and that somehow Coke has survived as a symbol in both of their imaginations. 

Road to Boston
dir. Kang Je-kyu
113 min.

Screens Saturday, 6/8, 2:30pm @ Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Part of the continuing series: Hallyu Hits: Korean Films that Moved the World

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and In Review Online. He has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, Off Screen, and DMovies amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, & Middle Eastern film. 

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