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The Ball Shot by a Midget
  |     review    |     notes     |     availability     |    

The loving family in The Ball Shot by a Midget.
Year: 1981  
Director: Lee Won-Se  
Writer: Cho Se-Hee (based on his own novel)  
  Cast: Kim Bul-Yi, Ahn Sung-Ki, Jeon Yang-Ja, Kim Chu-Ryeon, Geum Bo-Ra
  The Skinny: A lyrical neorealism film that eschews the family melodrama for a powerful and affecting look at poverty. Yes, there is a midget, but it's not that type of film.
Kevin Ma:
     It might not have the most politically-correct title, but the 1981 Korean classic A Ball Shot by a Midget is probably the least mean-spirited film about a height-challenged individual I've ever seen. Unlike what the title might suggest, the film is actually a poignant look at a family's struggle to survive poverty while trying to stay happy. The midget in question, Kim Bul-Yi (both the actor and the character share the same name, though I doubt he's playing himself), is actually presented as just another proud working man who just wants to provide for his family. After the circus he performs for disbands, he returns home to his loving wife and three children: Young-Su, a recently-released convict that gave up studying to work in the salt fields; younger son Young-Ho, an aspiring boxer; and daughter Young-Hi, who works at the local bakery and earns quite a bit of unwanted attention from men. However, Bul-Yi thinks he's too young to retire and stay home, and finds a job as a doorman at a local nightclub where he's belittled every night by the clientele.
     Then again, poverty is not such a big deal when the family is finally under one roof. Even though everyone has their own issues to deal with, they all seem to get along swimmingly. However, that peace threatens to crumble when an eviction notice arrives at the family's door. The salt farm they live on has been shut down due to contamination, and the family has literally earned themselves a ticket to move into an apartment in town as factories plan to move into the area. But a ticket only guarantees them the right to buy an apartment, and the family just doesn't have the money to pay for it. The only other option left is to sell the ticket to real estate agents, but that means selling everything the family has built for only a fraction of its worth, just to afford a room too small for a family of five. Obviously, this puts the family between a rock and a hard place.
     "Life is tough" is probably the most basic lesson in the film, but A Ball Shot by a Midget was meant to be so much more. Based on a 1976 award-winning "resistance" novel, the story was written at a time where much of popular culture was censored, and the screenplay itself went through the censorship process twice before it was approved for filming. Yet, A Ball Shot by a Midget remains a tragic and damning look at the system, where the rich profit off the poor, and the poor are simply neglected when they no longer serve their purpose. However, the family is also presented somewhat too nicely in the face of adversity; in one scene, the saintly mother figure is so nice that she even offers some hard-earned meat to the construction workers tearing down their house. Her reason: the workers may be tearing down everything the family has worked for, but they're just doing their jobs. Call me a cynic, but it's hard to imagine people that nice ever existed.
     Regardless of your political view about 1970s South Korea, A Ball Shot by a Midget is really about a family and the price they pay to survive. The title character may be a midget, and his size is a minor issue throughout the film, but Kim Bul-Yi's family could easily be any other family living near that salt farm. The focus is thankfully not on Bul-Yi's abnormal height, but rather his role as a family man, his children's duty to the family, the love the family shares, and their struggles through poverty. I don't dare to presume any meaning using a midget as the man of the house might have in the grand scheme of things, but the creators should be praised for not making a joke out of their protagonists. In fact, the title may be the only humorous - and definitely the most misleading - part of the film. Make no mistake, A Ball Shot by a Midget is serious film, and rightfully so, too. Lee presents the film's devastating events and strong emotions artfully, making the film more lyrical than punishingly grim, despite its lack of broad, audience-friendly humor.
     Unlike contemporary social realism films, which see their worlds in a gritty and harsh light, A Ball Shot by a Midget is a masterful blend of styles. The script by novelist Cho Se-Hee deals with very real and grim subjects which are usually conveyed in a very raw visual approach, but director Lee Won-Se handles his subject matter elegantly. The South Korean rural landscapes are depicted in elegant wide shots, and even the sex scenes, often explicit in contemporary Korean cinema, are very tastefully done. As oxymoronic as it sounds, the result is a poetic neorealistic work that manages to deliver an emotional impact, thanks to Lee's balance of the cinematic language and dedication to realism. Usually voiceovers are regarded as a tool for the lazy screenwriter to convey such emotions, but Hong and Lee use them effectively here. Characters express their innermost thoughts through "telepathic conversations," where characters have imaginary conversations with a moral compass to show their uncertainty about their situations. They register a little too high on the overacting scale at points, but the technique itself is effective without being too dramatic.
     Furthermore, Lee strays from melodrama conventions by actually having the family get along. Kim Bul-Yi, in what seems to be his only film performance, lacks strong acting chops, but his character's scenes with eldest son Young-Su are often the most the film's most poignant and affecting. This is largely due to Ahn Sung-Ki's powerful performance as Young-Su, who's the closest thing in the film to a protagonist. Young-Su's situation is often put front and center to highlight the pessimism that idealistic young people faced at the time. Since we connect with Young-Su, and since the filmmakers show at the beginning that the children are often protective of their father's reputation, it's easy to build a connection between him and Bul-Yi. In fact, the characters get along so well that the filmmakers seem to suggest that Young-Hi has some borderline incestuous feeling for her older brother, though that aspect is probably better off in another movie altogether. It might be more interesting to see another melodrama where family members bicker endlessly, but the choice to do otherwise only serves to highlight the theme of the poor's struggle in an oppressive society. It's an important message to get across, and that's what makes A Ball Shot by a Midget one of the most important Korean films you've probably never seen. (Kevin Ma 2007)
Notes: • The film was set to feature music by banned musician Kim Min-Ki, but his contribution was never used because of the government's strict censorship policies at the time.
• Despite the two rounds of censorship changes the screenplay went through, the film still suffered multiple cuts, and lines were redubbed during post-production. This means the praise in the above review may be due to content not initially intended by the filmmakers.
Availability: DVD (Korea)
Region 0 NTSC
Cedar Online
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Korean Language Track
Dolby Digital 2.0
Removable English and Korean Subtitles
  Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen