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‘Bronze Medalist’ Has Charms of Sports Drama

Pushing limits, celebrating team spirit and savoring that delicious victory _ or honorable loss _ the classic sports drama is programmed to grip viewers with an adrenaline rush. “Bronze Medalist,” featuring weightlifting teenage girls, offers everything you expect from such a film, but also more.

South Korea is a country obsessed with first prizes, and Olympic silver and bronze medalists often hang their heads in shame for “letting down” fans. Last year’s “Forever the Moment” spotlighted the women’s handball team’s memorable silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and “Bronze” is about another relatively unpopular sport, weightlifting, which was virtually ignored until the 2008 Beijing Olympics catapulted Jang Mi-ran to superstardom with a gold medal and three world records.

“Bronze” is not a biography on Jang, but it could well have been. It is based on the true story behind the 81st National Sports Festival in 2000, when four of five girls from the same weightlifting team swept 14 golds and one silver out of 15 competitions. This record remains unbeaten to this day, and the girls, who practiced with bamboo poles because they couldn’t afford real weights, went on to become national athletes like Jang. Behind such an impressive team, of course, was a passionate coach.

Lee Beom-su, whose stardom has just begun to catch up with his hardball acting (“More Than Blue”), stars as retired weightlifter Lee Ji-bong. The movie takes viewers back to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when Ji-bong snaps his elbow in the snatch _ just like Hungary’s Janos Baranyai during the Beijing Games. He wins a bronze medal, but is forced to retire due to a hitherto unknown heart condition.

He reluctantly accepts a coaching position at a provincial girls’ middle school, where he is more interested in fishing than initiating the zealous youngsters into his bitter world of “only pain and no gain.”

Nevertheless, it is difficult for him, or the viewer, not to become fond of the improbable team members: Yeong-ja (“Muoi” screen beauty Jo An who gained seven kilograms for the role), a poor girl whose physical stamina is her only asset; shy and chubby Hyeon-jeong (Jeon Bo-mi) who nurses a crush on the most popular boy in town; book smart Su-ok (Lee Seul-bi) who wants to boost her extracurricular activity list so she can enter Harvard law school and become an FBI agent; tomboyish Yeo-sun (Choi Mun-gyeong) who wishes to succeed in order to support her ill mother; high-spirited Bo-yeong, a born weightlifter; and eccentrically fashionable Min-heui (Lee Yun-heui), who joins the team because she fancies the uniform.

Of course, it’s only by chance that Ji-bong discovers the teacher in him. He catches Yeong-ja drinking milk out of the trash, and realizes that a meal plan via the team could benefit her. The school principal suggests that funding from the local administration may be possible, but they must first master the art of persuasion.

Ji-bong and the girls’ efforts to feign an enthusiastic but under-equipped team provides some generic but endearing slapstick for the next few reels. The “special” team spirit yields not only a meal service and training camp of their own, but also genuine enthusiasm for weightlifting, for both coach and trainees. Their camp becomes a haven for the lost girls, who pump up muscles and sisterhood, and for Ji-bong, who can finally come to terms with himself.

Middle school, however, does not last forever, nor would Ji-bong’s stubborn insistence to ignore his chest pains.

Recently, “U and Me” by Jeon Gye-su, released as part of the omnibus “If You Were Me 4,” spotlighted how difficult it could be for a budding young woman to deal with being macho. Compared to the short film, “Bronze” remains within the realm of mainstream superficiality and Disneyesque political correctness, but it stands apart from typical Hollywood sport movies with dramatic counterpoints and humor that are distinctively Korean.

In addition to Lee, Jo and the group of newcomer actresses, the movie features a supporting cast of A-list veteran actors and cameos by real athletes who give the movie that extra kick and dimension.

In theaters from July 1. 120 minutes. All ages admitted. Distributed by N.E.W. (by Lee Hyo-won)