Korean Film Festival 2016 Review: 4th Place (South Korea, 2015)

4th Place

With the Olympics in full swing, 4th Place (4등) was an appropriate opener for this year’s KOFFIA – a story about a boy’s love and passion for swimming against the backdrop of the competitive environment that Korean children grow up in.

The journey begins in the past as we watch Gwang-su (Park Hae-joon), a prodigy in the Korean swimming team, constantly coming first and breaking records, his attitude is easy going and friendly. Popping by a late night street stall, he meets a sports reporter and the two have a crazy night of drinking. Next minute, our sports reporter wakes up with a hangover, half hanging out of his car, he runs into the swimming pool to check on his drinking buddy. The dawn training session is just ending, someone is overheard to query Gwang-su’s time. Turns out he just beat his personal best.

With the Asian Games approaching, the team start training in Seoul. Gwang-su goes in to say goodbye to his gambling buddies but is lured in by the scent of money. As the wads of cash changes hands, the cops burst in and take the stash. Bummed out, Gwang-su figures he might as well go and train for the upcoming games. On the way he receives a phone call, he immediately stops the bus and races home. One of the men managed to get all the money back, after finding out his wife was the one to tell the cops. “You shouldn’t have hit your wife”, says Gwang-su when he hears the story.

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Ten days later, Gwang-su is still gambling and smoking, he is confident that he is better than everyone else and doesn’t need to train. One of his managers finally finds Gwang-su hiding away and forces him to head to Seoul. After the session, Gwang-su is asked to stay back and beaten for his attitude to his training. In pain and angry at this treatment, Gwang-su runs from the training centre.

The TV blares out footage of the Asian Games, Gwang-su watches with a sad face and recalls someone he met a few weeks prior, he calls the sports reporter he met and asks him to write a story about how abusive the coach was to him and how unfair it is to Gwang-su.

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Modern day Korea, we meet eleven year-old Joon-ho (Yoo Jae-sang), it’s a junior competition. He races and comes gets 4th place while his mum Jeong-ae (Lee Hang-na) by is screaming and cheering him on. As the results show on the screen, Joon-ho’s mum calls her husband (Choi Moo-sung) in annoyance, her son was 4th place again, her husband listens patiently and says winning isn’t everything as long as he enjoys it. At the end of every race, Joon-ho’s mum calls her husband and says she doesn’t want her son to grow up to be a loser. When she drives her son home, she also berates Joon-ho for not trying hard enough.

One day, Joon-ho’s mum hears about a spectacular coach and approaches another mother whose son constantly wins his races. She is rebuffed but constantly appears at the same church until she relents and passes her a phone number saying that they both may regret this decision. When our young swimmer meets the coach, it’s none other than Gwang-su. From the beginning there are a few shady warnings, but Joon-ho’s mum is keen to have Gwang-su as a coach for her son.

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Joon-ho just wants to get into the water but to his disappointment, he finds his new coach constantly eking out an existence at the net café. After aggravating Gwang-su into action, Joon-ho gets a chance to show his ability in the pool. Gwang-su is impressed and starts an extreme practice regime. At the first dawn session, Joon-ho is asked to get out of the pool after a few practice laps, Gwang-su berates him for not concentrating. Joon-ho is made to bend over while Gwang-su beats him with a broom. Gwang-su’s stance and Joon-ho’s tears are reminiscent of the earlier flashback from Gwang-su’s glory days. Gwang-su tells Joon-ho that he is only beating him when he doesn’t do what he is asked and laments that his own coach didn’t beat him at all, he only received praise but wishes that he was trsated more equally with his team-mates.

As time goes by, the beatings take a toll on Joon-ho and affects his daily life. He reflects whether he still loves swimming just as much as before and what it means to be a winner. In a bittersweet scene, his studious younger brother recites a translation of Alexandr Pushkin’s poem “If life should deceive you.” It is a powerful moment as the characters begin to clash and more elements of Gwang-su’s past is aired out for the viewers.

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4th Place is a movie dealing with the intense pressure that young Korean children face as they grow up, the competitive nature of the school and sport environment, the psychology of abusive behaviour when it becomes a normal part of your routine and the double standards a culture changes with the times. It makes you question whether Joon-ho’s mum being selfish for pushing her son so hard or is she raising him to survive in a harsh world.

Fascinated by the thought that the tears shed by swimmers, whether from happiness or sadness, always go unnoticed, director Jung Ji-woo wrote this script and used a lot of experimental video montages filmed under water. Through this he wanted to show that the moral of the story is that it’s not about the rank you gain, but as long as you do it on your own and in your own way, then you’re a winner. (P.S. the director said that!)

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

4th Place is being shown as part of the Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA). It will screen next in Brisbane on the 23rd August, Melbourne on the 1st of September, Adelaide on the 15th September and Perth on the 22nd September.

For more information and ticketing visit koffia.com.au