Marathon (말아톤, Jeong Yun-cheol: 2005)

As a young man with autism, Cho-won is encouraged by his mother to focus on his love of running. His mother, Kyong-sook, dreams that one day her son will be able to complete a marathon on his own, so she arranges for an instructor to train him in preparation for the long run. Cho-won is partnered up with a coach who begrudgingly accepts the job (as part of his community service), but who also causes Kyong-sook to question her own intentions regarding her sons treatment…

Get your tissues at the ready for Marathon – a feel-good under-dog drama that also qualifies as a weepie in its attempts to pull at each and everyone of your heartstrings that it can grab a hold of while jogging along gently in the warm sunlight. Inspired by the true story of Bae Hyeong-jin, a young man with autism who has performed some impressive physical feats, Marathon (also known as Running Boy) saw director Jeong Tun-cheol – who also writes here – in the directors chair for the first time.

Central to the success of Marathon, Cho Weung-woo gives a powerful central performance as Cho-won (winning a ‘Best Actor’ award at the 42nd Daejong Film Festival for his efforts) and manages to give a very naturalistic account of the young man with autism. It’s a nicely judged and commendably subtle performance, with only the smallest of changes in tone and movement revealing more about the character than any showboating could. While Cho Seung-woo largely steals the screen with his affecting Cho-won, Marathon is about more than just the struggles of one man. Marathon is at its most effective when it manages to reflection how autism affects not just Cho-won but those around him. Baek Seong-hyeon gets a small but memorable role as Cho-won’s frustrated younger brother, and Lee Ki-young brings some colour to proceedings as coach Jeon-wook who is strong-armed into training the young runner – training which seems to include gambling on horse races, drinking beer and cursing. The real heart of Marathon though – and what really cements it as a drama rather than just pure melodrama – is Cho-won’s mother Kyong-sook. Played with pathos by Kim Mi-sook it’s the most complex performance of the film, moving from caring, positive, encouraging and joyful onto the more frightening situation of being fearful, controlling and – as a result – exhausted. Kyong-sook reflects the difficulties for a mother raising a child with a disability (as opposed to Cho Seung-woo’s performance of Cho-won which can really only portray his own difficulties in dealing with everyday tasks), and this portrayal of one parents struggle to overcome her own fears, hopes and disappointments is where the real meat of the emotional impact of the film can be found.

If all of this sounds like difficult, heavy material then it’s to Marathon ‘s credit that it creates an intelligent character drama without either wallowing in the negatives for its whole two hour duration. This is, after all, also a feel-good drama, and it succeeds in lifting the tone and the mood after having set up the family drama but also by outling its clear goal: the aim of Cho-won to complete a whole marathon on his own – which for various reasons will reflect a personal achievement for everyone involved.

Marathon is a fantastic looking film. Beautiful cinematography that also manages to give it a real energy behind the camera – in contrast to many dramas which settle for the static camera, simple shots school of shooting. It’s crisply shot and with bright, vibrant colours throughout and with an intelligent visual focus that renders moments such as the sun breaking through the trees during running scenes, or repeated images such as the rain falling, nearly as important as the performances themselves. On top of this, the strengths of the cinematography and the use of colour schemes really come into their own when Marathon briefly slips into subtle surreal-like moments.

Marathon certainly delivers what it promises – although it takes a more thoughtful approach than you might at first expect – so be prepared for its emotional climax which is a masterclass in mixing onscreen performance, imagery and music in its attempt to pull as those heartstrings. It’s a rare occurrence for a film of this type, but Marathon never feels feel ham-fisted. Sure, it’s a little manipulative (you can see some of the barriers that Cho-won will inevitably breakdown from a mile away) but it’s more heartfelt and commited than the usual by-the-numbers ‘overcoming the odds’ cheese-fest.

Those with a soft spot for this type of material will need a box of tissues at the ready (being made of sterner and more cynical stuff I found myself in the unusual position of ‘having something in my eye’), Marathon proves to be one of those rare things – a ‘feel good’ film that actually makes you feel good.

말아톤 (Marathon)
Directed by Jeong Yun-cheol
Produced by Seok Myeong-hong, Lee Seung-yeop ,Shin Chang-hwan
Written by Yoon Jin-ho, Song Ye-jin
Starring Cho Weung-woo, Baek Seong-hyeon, Lee Ki-young, Kim Mi-sook

Marathon Image © CINELINE II