Have you heard of racewalking? I did not know anything about this rather obscure sport until I watched a little lovable South Korean film called “Queen of Walking”. Before writing this review, I checked Wikipedia, and I was surprised to learn that there are actually two racewalking distances contested at the Summer Olympics besides several top-level athletics championships in the world. As a matter of fact, you can easily find a number of YouTube clips showing those racewalking athletes competing with each other at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics.
For the young heroine of “Queen of Walking”, long-distance walking has been a part of her daily life in Gang-hwa Island, which is located near the metropolitan area of Seoul. Because she has an extraordinary motion sickness problem, Man-bok (Sim Eun-kyeong) cannot ride any kind of vehicle at all (she cannot even ride a slow-moving cart, for example), so she prefers to be on foot, and that means she has to walk for no less than 4 hours as she goes back and forth between her home and her high school. Due to her daily long-distance walking, she is frequently late for school while also often getting sleepy during her classes, but she does not care much because she is mostly fine with her life. She is happy at her cozy home, and her dear parents will soon welcome another child of theirs.
However, Man-bok’s home room teacher, who is a little too enthusiastic about encouraging her students, comes to believe that Man-bok needs to be motivated for her future. Noticing that Man-bok can be a good athlete, she asks the school athletic club coach to allow Man-bok to join his team, and the coach does not object to this at all, mainly because he has carried a torch for Man-bok’s teacher without her knowledge.
After casually evaluating Man-bok’s physical ability, the coach instructs her to begin the training for racewalking, and he tells her (and us) about its simple rule; while you may walk as fast as you can, your foot must appear to be in contact with the ground all the time – or you can be disqualified. This certainly looks like an easy thing to Man-bok, and her life becomes a little more exciting than before as she feels buoyed by what she may attain someday.
However, she does not look so serious in the viewpoint of Soo-ji (Park Joo-hee), a senior member who was once a promising long-distance runner before her unfortunate injury. Although she is advised by her doctor that she should consider other ways for her future, Soo-ji still cannot give up her dream to which she devoted herself for years, and that is why she has been pushing hard herself into racewalking, which is the only athletic option for her at present.
Not so surprisingly, Man-bok and Soo-ji do not get along well with each other right from their first day, and you may expect a dramatic tension or conflict from that, but then the movie surprises us with its gentle, thoughtful depiction of their strained relationship. While Man-bok comes to realize through her senior that she should be more serious about her training, Soo-ji also comes to learn something important from her junior, and there are several unexpected touching moments as they get to know about each other as well as themselves.
The director/writer Baek Seung-hwa, who previously directed two music documentaries “Turn It up to Eleven” (2009) and “Turn It up to Eleven 2: Wild Days” (2012), balances his story and characters well between lightweight humor and heartfelt drama, and the movie provides a number of funny moments which succeeded in inducing big chuckles from me during my viewing. While the movie certainly uses Man-bok’s motion sickness for laughs more than once, it thankfully does not go too far while delivering enough humor to tickle us, and I was also amused by Man-bok’s simple logical way for sidestepping her motion sickness to attain her goal later in the story.
Sim Eun-kyeong, who was fabulous in her breakthrough performance in “Sunny” (2011), gives an amiable lead performance which grows more on me after my viewing. Man-bok looks a bit silly at first, but we gradually come to like this sunny, plucky girl who becomes more sure and confident about herself and her life, and we cannot help but cheer for her especially during a moment which feels like a comic variation of the climax scene in “The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner” (1962).
Sim is surrounded by the dependable supporting performers who have each own moment to shine in the movie. Park Joo-hee is an effective dramatic counterpart to Sim, and the same thing can be said about Yoon Ji-won, who is also good as Man-bok’s practical schoolmate who turns out to be more clear-sighted than expected. Kim Sae-byeok, Heo Jeong-do, An Seung-gyun, Kim Kwang-gyoo, Kim Jeong-yeong, and Lee Jae-jin are solid in their respective broad but colorful supporting roles, and the special mention goes to a cow raised in Man-bok’s house, who gets juicy deadpan moments as the narrator of the film (The voice is provided by Ahn Jae-hong, who was very hilarious in “The King of Jokgu” (2013)).
Like another recent South Korean film “Overman” (2015), “Queen of Walking” is refreshingly bright and sincere with its optimistic attitude, and this likable female coming-of-age comedy drama is an ideal antidote to those solemn male-dominant South Korean noir films like “Asura: The City of Madness” (2016). Thanks to “Queen of Walking” and other equally notable films including “Snow Path” (2015), “Steel Flower” (2015), “The Handmaiden” (2016), “The World of Us” (2016), “The Truth Beneath” (2016), “The Queen of Crime” (2016) “Worst Woman” (2016), “The Bacchus Lady” (2016), and “Our Love Story” (2016), I and other South Korean audiences have beheld a considerable number of strong, interesting female characters to remember during this wonderful year, and I hope this emerging feministic trend will be continued for a long time.