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[FICTION VS. HISTORY] ‘Race to Freedom’ establishes a hero’s mythology: In reality, little is known about the background of famed cyclist Um Bok-dong

Apr 15,2019
Scenes from the film “Race to Freedom: Um Bok-dong,” featuring Jeong Ji-hoon, or Rain, as protagonist Um Bok-dong. The film is based on the true story of Um, who was a famed cyclist. Um became a symbol of pride for Koreans after he frequently defeated Japanese cyclists to win multiple bicycle races organized by the Japanese Government General of Korea. [CELLTRION ENTERTAINMENT]
At left is a bicycle that used to belong to Um Bok-dong. He rode this bicycle during a number of races during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45). It is now a piece of Korea’s Registered Cultural Heritage. At right is a statue of Um in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi. [YONHAP]
In film and television, historical dramas have never gone out of style. Fans of period dramas, both in Korea and abroad, like to be transported to a different time and learn about the stories that swept up - or were put in motion by - our ancestors. Some watch to see how the present compares with the past. Others watch to see progress. Foreign Korea-philes can get a crash course in Korean history while watching historical films. But all historical dramas create characters, add romantic plots and conflate or invent events to make sure viewers don’t lose interest. With Fiction vs. History, the Korea JoongAng Daily attempts to distinguish fact from fiction in popular period dramas and films for clarification and to dispel misunderstandings.

Historical flick “Race to Freedom: Um Bok-dong” hit theaters on Feb. 27, aiming to tap into audiences’ sense of patriotism as the country commemorates the centenary of the March 1 Independence Movement. Directed by Kim Yoo-sung and starring Jeong Ji-hoon, also known as Rain, as the protagonist, the plot of the movie seemed perfect for the occasion.

The film is based on the true story of famed cyclist Um Bok-dong, who became a symbol of pride for Koreans as he beat Japanese cyclists in several big races that were organized by the Japanese Government General of Korea during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45).

Despite the heartwarming plot, the movie sold just 170,000 tickets, not even close to reaching the break-even point of around four million tickets needed to match its budget, which was 10 billion won ($8.95 million).

However critics and audiences felt about the movie, it still reminded Koreans of the name Um Bok-dong. The director clearly states in the beginning of the movie that he recreated the story of Um using his imagination in an attempt put the spotlight back on this great cyclist who once was a symbol of pride for Koreans.

Most of the details about Um in the film are fictional.

In the movie, Um is selling water to merchants when, one day, he sees a man selling a bicycle. He is mesmerized by what he sees and imagines how great it would be to carry water and make deliveries on wheels. He shares this dream with his younger siblings.

Um’s younger brother buys him a bicycle using the tuition fees he received from his father. When he gets on his new bicycle, he heads straight out to deliver water to his customers. On his way home, he makes a quick stop to buy something at a market and when he comes out from the store, his bike is gone. He comes home crying and his father is furious.

Um leaves his hometown and goes to Seoul to earn money to pay his brother back. He then discovers an ad looking for cyclists to participate in the Joseon Bicycle Competition organized by the Japanese Government General of Korea. The prize, the ad states, was 100 won - enough to convince Um to sign up for the race. (Today, that same amount would be worth approximately 10 million won.)

However, in reality, Um was from Seoul and his family and educational background, as well as his family history, are unknown. What is known about him is that he used to work at a bicycle shop, which is where he most likely learned about the races he competed in.

Korea’s first bicycle race was held on April 22, 1906. It was organized by an officer of the Korean Empire (1897-1910) and a Japanese man. It was held at a military training site in Dongdaemun District in central Seoul. Anyone, regardless of their nationality, who could ride a bicycle could participate in the race.

The very first race Um won was on March 10, 1913. After winning his second race a month later, on April 13, in Yongsan’s Jangchungdan Park, he became famous and was quickly hailed by millions of Koreans.

In the film, young Korean kids hum a song as they praise Um for being the “best athlete in Asia who beat the Japanese.” This song was actually hummed by many Koreans during the Japanese colonial period. The tune is a folk song from the Gyeonggi region titled “A Youth Song,” but the lyrics were changed. Many people who lived through the 1920s still remember the song.

One major difference between the film and history is Um’s participation in the race being closely related to Korea’s Righteous Army (informal civilian militias that appear several times in Korean history).

According to the movie, members of the Righteous Army believed participating in the bicycle competitions and winning first place was a patriotic act. They tried to recruit the best athletes and train them to beat the Japanese cyclists to lift people’s spirits.

In reality, however, Um’s participation in the bicycle race had nothing to do with the Righteous Army. He competed to represent the bicycle shop where he worked as a delivery clerk, which was common for many participants at the time.

In the exciting races portrayed in the movie, he wins by passing Japanese cyclists in the final laps, but records state that he had a sizable lead in most of the races he participated in. He did, however, almost get arrested during a race, as shown in the movie.

During a race in the 1920s, Japanese referees abruptly halted the competition when it was evident that Um was going to win again. Um ran into the stands and tore the championship flag in protest. Japanese soldiers began to hit Um and take him out of the stadium, but Korean spectators ran in to protect Um. The Japanese officers, therefore, had no choice but to break up the spectators and end the competition.

Although he was seen as a national hero for several years, he lived a life of poverty for many years. What the film didn’t include was that the final newspaper article about Um was not about him winning another race, but about him being caught after stealing a bicycle in 1950. Some people criticized the film, saying that Um shouldn’t be depicted as such a hero because he was a thief, but the director and producers explained that they only learned that fact after filming had already begun.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]