New for me
While I heard some praise directed at Marathon when it was released in Korea in 2005, my general disinterest in the subject matter of marathon running caused me to neglect it. This was a mistake because, even though marathon running is an element of the story, it's really a human drama about the lives of those touched by autism. Although the film does have some strong dramatic moments that might even edge towards being manipulative, the character-focused narrative, good performances and strong direction will leave a strong impression. And despite my normal resistance to high emotional elements in film, something about the grounded way that this film created its drama still managed to move me.
Loosely based on a true story, our titular marathon runner is Chowoo (Cho Seungwoo), whose mother (Kim Misook) discovers early on is autistic. After some struggles with the fact early on, Chowon's mother becomes his greatest champion, taking his seeming affinity for running into competition, possibly at the neglect of her marriage and relationship with her normally function son, Jungwon (Baek Sunghyun). This drives her to seek out retired and slovenly former Boston Marathon winner Son Jungwook (Lee Kiyoung), who needs to serve community service due to a drunk driving incident. However, as Jungwook trains Chowon and forms a reluctant bond, Chowon's mother's perception and purpose for pressing Chowon to run comes into doubt.
Although the storytelling can be a little haphazard, it's all anchored in Chowon's upcoming marathon, keeping the momentum of the story moving forward, but still handled with a light enough touch that the film never becomes excessively pressured or melodramatic. The infusion of a warm sense of humor and a high attention to character really helps the dramatic tension, especially with Chowon's mother and Coach Jungwook. That said, the flow of the film causes both of these dynamic characters to drop out at various points during the film rather than weaving their stories together. This especially makes Jungwook's presence in a film feel larger than it should be, but that's small complaint when this feel good story works so well otherwise, even eventually making the originally difficult to empathize with Chowon more accessible towards the end, which itself an impressive feat.
Like many Korean films, Marathon looks fantastic, with high production values and the direction is handled well by first time feature director Jung Yoonchul, giving a lot of space for the actors to handle their characters, but also taking some creative liberties, especially towards the end of the film to help us access Chowon's character more. As a result of the character-centered narrative, the performances by the cast are critical to the success of the film and the cast does well in this regard.
The result is a likable, even if somewhat segmented, story, with a character-focused narrative that is quite involving and, even at times, moving, all wrapped up in a well photographed and capably directed picture. It's not easy for an athletically-oriented film to capture my attention and retain it, but Marathon did it, with its grounded story and believable performances. 8/10.