A boy in the crowd who stands alone
In one of the highlights of the Korean film “Running Boy” (the original Korean title is “Marathon”), there is a scene in which an autistic boy is surrounded by a crowd of adults on a subway platform. They’re confronting the boy because he tried to touch a woman; they assume the worst, of course, but he only touched her because she was wearing a skirt with a zebra pattern, and zebras are his favorite animal. The camera circles the boy, who, though standing in a crowd, is clearly different from the others.
Toward the end of the film, the same boy is running in a marathon. At first we only see the boy; then the camera slowly pulls back until the boy disappears into the crowd of hundreds of other runners.
The contrast between these two scenes add up to a poignant statement about the meaning of disability in our society.
“Running Boy” is a movie about disability, and about the lack of tolerance society has for people who are different. Based on the true story of an autistic boy who completed the Chuncheon Marathon four years ago, the film’s protagonist is 20-year old Cho-won (played by Cho Seung-woo), who was diagnosed with autism at the age of five. His mother, played by Kim Mi-suk, is a major character in the film, vividly illustrating the hardships experienced by families living with autistic people.
Yet “Running Boy” is probably one of the first Korean films backed with solid acting to treat the subject of mental disability without falling into the trap of romanticizing it, or resorting to a “victim” mentality.
Perhaps its success is owed in part to the witty dialogue, a pleasurable surprise for audiences who are not used to that kind of humor in Korean films dealing with disability. Throughout the film, the boy’s unusual verbal expressions become cheerful ways of interacting with others.
The film also honestly depicts what the disability does to Cho-won’s family. His mother is determined to make him finish a marathon in less than three hours; while this is for her son’s good, the film is also frank about how her own personal ambitions are motivating her as well.
Cho-won’s exhausted father, who is often intolerant toward his son, is depicted as neither evil nor a saint; the focus is mostly on his dilemmas. Overall, the film refrains from judging any of its characters; the audience will likely suspend judgment, too. They’ll also feel a sense of hope, and perhaps some guilt.
But the film’s greatest success may be in what it’s done for people in Korea who are living with mental disabilities, who finally have a film that’s broken the silence about the subject.
Released last month, “Running Boy” has become the most popular movie in the country (according to the Daum Internet portal), and has already had the positive effect of spreading awareness about the issue through media coverage. That in itself is a credit to the people who made the movie.
Running Boy (Marathon)
Drama / Korean
by Park Soo-mee
“Marathon” is being shown with English subtitles three times daily at COEX Megabox Theater, at 7:30 p.m., 10 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.