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Film shows why South Korea's Kim is more than just an Olympic skating champion

March 25, 2010 |  9:28 am

It's a shame there are no plans yet to air in North America a fascinating Discovery Channel documentary on South Korean figure skating star Kim Yuna.

This week would have been a perfect time to show it, since Kim begins defense of her 2009 world title Friday in Turin, Italy.

The English-language film, "Hip Korea: Yu-Na Kim -- Seoul Spirit," which premiered on Discovery in South Korea last week, traces Kim's rise to the 2009 world title, but it is as much a sociological and cultural story as it is a biography of this young woman who won the 2010 Olympic gold medal.

Kim's story is told in the context of how she embodies the changes in women's stature in South Korea.KimDisc

It is a country where, the film asserts, the empowerment of girls and women has accelerated dramatically in the decade during which Kim, 19, became not only her nation's first figure skating champion but also a national hero and a symbol of the new confidence with which South Korean women now seek expanded roles in society.

I wrote about what Kim means to South Korea, especially in terms of its complex and tortured history with Japan, in a lengthy profile of her published just before the Olympics and a story the night of the women's short program.  

The documentary adds new dimensions to our picture of Kim.

Discovery Channel calls the Seoul Metropolitan Government its partner in the documentary, which means that government would like the city presented as a gender-progressive place.  But the interviews don't sound scripted, and the background information on Kim (including views of an animated comic book that illustrates some of her past psychological crises and angst about skating) rings true with what I have come to know about her -- including the critical role her mother has played in the skater's career.

Producer Keiko Bang of Singapore-based Bang Productions told me by e-mail that the Seoul government's only involvement in the film, which cost some $300,000 to make, was as an advertiser on Discovery Channel.  Bang said the film is "an independent editorial documentary that is owned by IB Sports and Bang Singapore in association with Discovery Networks Asia."

Bang said neither IB Sports, the South Korean agency that represents Kim, nor the Seoul government had any editorial control over the content.

The entire film briefly had been available through a link to a video aggregator website, but that has removed for copyright reasons.

Bang said issues including International Skating Union ownership of footage from ISU events prevented allowing me to post the whole film, but he provided the five-minute trailer embedded below. (There is a commercial and a brief pause before it begins.) The still pictures above are of scenes from the film, with the top two of Kim during a cruise on Seoul's Han River.

A Discovery spokesperson said there are "no current plans to air the show on [Discovery Channel] in the U.S.''  I hope it has a change of heart, because this film gets to the heart of why this young woman is more than just a gifted, Olympic champion skater.

-- Philip Hersh