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'Road to Boston': inspiring drama of two iconic Korean marathoners in dark time

10:32 September 12, 2023

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Sept. 12 (Yonhap) -- Running the tricky and tough 42.2-kilometer course in Boston requires intensive training and patience. However, winning was not the only goal for Korean marathoner Suh Yun-bok and his coach, Sohn Kee-chung, at the 1947 Boston Marathon.

Two years after Korea's liberation from the 1910-45 Japanese colonial rule, Suh was also on a mission to run with a T-shirt emblazoned with the Korean national flag. He achieved the goal and won the race with a world record time of 2:25:39.

Director Kang Je-gyu's new film "Road to Boston" tells the heartwarming and uplifting story of 1947 Boston Marathon champion Suh (played by Yim Si-wan) and Sohn (played by Ha Jung-woo), an iconic Korean marathoner who finds redemption in his protege's victory.

The poster of the sports film "Road to Boston" is seen in this photo provided by its distributor Lotte Entertainment. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

The film begins with Sohn's famous photo taken Aug. 9, 1936, at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. With his head bowed, the gold medalist clutches a young oak tree to his chest to hide the Japanese flag on his shirt.

Behind him is Nam Sung-yong (Bae Sung-woo), a Korean bronze medalist whose grim face is staring at his feet.

As Korea was part of the Japanese Empire from 1910 to 1945, Sohn was forced to run under a Japanese name, Sohn Kitei, and the gold medal was recorded as a Japanese triumph.

The Korean daily Dong-A Ilbo carried his photo on the front page after erasing the Japanese flag from his chest, and Sohn lived under oppression and was under close watch by the Japanese government after that.

The story then moves to 1947, two years after Korea's liberation from Japan. The country is divided into the South and the North, occupied by the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively.

Sohn, now living in South Korea, finds a silver lining in Suh, an emerging marathoner with the potential to become the "Next Sohn Kee-chung." He trains Suh for the 1947 Boston Marathon, the first international marathon to be held since the end of World War II.

A scene from the Korean sports film "Road to Boston" is seen in this photo provided by its distributor, Lotte Entertainment. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

But the road to Boston was tough.

Before the Republic of Korea was established in 1948, South Korea under U.S. military rule was considered a refugee country, which means the athletes had to pay a large deposit and present a U.S.-based guarantor to compete in the race.

Thanks to donations by U.S. servicemen stationed in Korea and Koreans, Suh; Nam, the bronze medalist; and Sohn fly to Boston on a U.S. military plane.

The Korean delegate once again faces hurdles in Boston as the T-shirts of Suh and Nam were emblazoned with the U.S. flag. However, Suh and Nam ultimately run with Korean national flags.

In the final racing scene, Suh tackles the infamous Newton's Heartbreak Hill and crosses the finish line first, breaking his coach's world record set in 1936.

Based on real-life events, the period film pays homage to Sohn, who was forced to run with the Japanese flag and spent the rest of his life coaching notable Korean runners, including Suh; Ham Kee-yong, the winner of the 1950 Boston Marathon; and Hwang Young-cho, the gold medalist of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Director Kang, best known for "Shiri" (1999) and "Taegukgi" (2004), both of which dealt with dark moments in Korean history, delivers an underlying message of national identity behind the uplifting sports story set in the tumultuous time of Korea in the early 20th century. But the way he tells the story is sometimes overly sentimental and nationalistic, making it highly predictable.

Actor Yim's performance is realistic as he built a lean, muscular runner's body through rigorous training to have a body fat percentage as low as 6 percent. Co-star Ha portrays the legendary runner's emotional depth from sorrow and anger to joy and strikes the right balance with Yim.

"Road to Boston" opens at local theaters Sept. 27.


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