Director: Seung-hwa Baek
London Korean Film Festival teaser screening review
The tension between a cutesy surface and a cruel reality is fundamental to the comedy of Seung-hwa Baek’s Queen of Walking, the colourful and eccentrically stylised tale of a perky young misfit struggling to find her niche in life. A semi-parodic take on the coming-of-age drama and the underdog sports movie, the film spends much of its runtime radiating the cheery, can-do mindset of its lead – thanks in no small part to a charming performance from Eun-kyung Shim – while delivering deadpan punchlines that undermine the teenage Man-bok’s youthful naïveté. You’d be hard pressed to find a film so ostensibly sunny with this many vomit jokes, but so long as this endearing balance of sweet and sour is maintained, Queen of Walking succeeds as a funny and relatable illustration of the hard-luck teen years.
The running gag of Man-bok blowing chunks at inappropriate moments comes courtesy of the protagonist’s severe motion sickness, which renders her incapable of sitting in a moving vehicle for any significant length of time. Resultantly, Man-bok is an inhibited and vulnerable individual who barely strays beyond her rural neighbourhood, save for having to walk two hours to school every day. With the schoolgirl also floundering in her studies, a concerned member of staff (Kim Sae-Byuk, in a role that suggests a tongue-in-cheek variation on the life-changing teacher trope) takes it upon herself to find something that Man-bok isn’t hopelessly incompetent at. It quickly becomes apparent that Man-bok may have a future in the unsung sport of race walking thanks to her involuntary habit of travelling on foot wherever she goes.
As per the film’s comically cynical underpinnings, Man-bok’s training largely consists of a series entertaining pitfalls and humiliations. Committed senior race-walker Su-ji (Joo-hee Park) has little interest in striking up a friendship with the merry young newcomer. Man-bok’s nausea-inducing bus journey to her first competitive try-out sees her tripping out on an excessive number of motion sickness patches (and witnessing a big green race-walking dinosaur in the film’s most amusingly absurd moment) before woozily passing out within moments of her race beginning. Meanwhile, even her crush on the local delivery boy seems to bring only further embarrassment, which of course, is the audience’s gain.
Once Man-bok’s journey makes its inevitable curve into an upward trajectory, it becomes a narrative necessity that Queen of Walking isn’t quite so hard on its heroine. Unfortunately, it is here that the feature finds itself at a loss as to where to direct its flippant humour, and so the film’s sentimental side begins to dominate with lesser results. Moving into the territory of a relatively grounded coming-of-age drama, the final third of Queen of Walking seeks to up the seriousness levels but loses much of the film’s irreverent, off-the-wall charm in the transition. The new approach takes a fair while to win us over, though the film’s climactic race is suitably tense, just about earning the story’s feel-good conclusion.
In any case, Seung-hwa Baek has brought us an enjoyable and assured, if tonally lopsided, feature debut that backs up its agreeable quirks with just enough refreshing insight and emotional clout for us to overlook the familiarity of its narrative arc. Though Queen of Walking never fully succeeds in elevating itself beyond the realm of light-hearted entertainment, it is a work that thrives within these modest bounds and will likely resonate at least a little with any viewer who’s struggled to find a destined path in this hazardous and competitive world that seems too big to traverse by foot.
Find information about upcoming LKFF screenings here.
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