The fifth-highest-grossing Korean film of 2008 takes some very familiar sports-movie liberties with a nation-captivating 2004 Olympic final, but even at 2-plus relentlessly trite hours, Forever the Moment is in some ways essential, for being, by all accounts, the first-ever dramatic feature-length film about the world’s coolest sport, team handball.
Director and cowriter Yim Soonrye frames the human drama in stable widescreen compositions, brightly lit; it’s an organized pageant of heartstring-tugging backstories fit to fill airtime during NBC’s Olympic telecasts. There’s some genuine feel for the financial travails and emotional sacrifices of elite athletes who dedicate their lives to minor sports (at one point a debt collector fondles a gold medal in a moment recalling one of the more indelible scenes in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), but it’s soon subsumed by a torrent of one-note characters and their respective melodramatic obstacles, as has-beens, never-wases, young turks and an arrogant coach overcome family trouble and training-camp hijinxs to bond as a team and make it to the gold medal game at Athens 2004. It takes more than an hour of slapstick cafeteria struggles, Cool Runnings-esque overdog-aping tactical reformulations, blithely circumvented logistics, single motherhood, all-in-this-together speeches and female solidarity just to get to a decent training montage.
But even as it backburners an unaccountable amount of actual games, Forever the Moment does eventually offer a good 20-30 minutes of actual handball, distilling the game’s constant highlight-reel leaping shots and coordinated passing movements. The appeal is elemental—handball is basically the first sport we’d invent if we were starting from scratch, going off of nothing except our innate wonderment at the controlled abandon of bodies in motion, in concert with and in opposition to one another—and Yim films the action with agility, placing her camera at floor level, pivoting along with the ball and then knifing between the bodies of defenders to approach the goal. The action here—despite the presence of real European club players as the Korean team’s opponents—is a little more fluid and opened-up than is generally the case, and the players should really bounce more of their shots rather than shooting high; the script of the final game, too, is rewritten to go at nationalistic pressure-points like a staple gun. But for the most part the movie can be categorized alongside other sports flicks that seem most specific and natural-seeming when the game is on.
Alternately, the 2004 Olympic women’s handball final’s actual, no less thrilling conclusion is on YouTube, as God intended.