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Friday Flicks: ‘Lump of Sugar’ (2006)

This week movie critic Amanda Ronan takes on The Best Korean Horse Movie Ever, featuring a defiant girl jockey, a fallen-through-the-cracks racehorse and a trainer named Mr. Yoon.

From Amanda:

Lump of Sugar (2006) opens with a small girl trudging up a snowy hill.  Upon reaching her mother’s gravestone, the girl passes out from exhaustion but is rescued by a chestnut mare named General.

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The little girl, Sieun, has a special bond with General, her mother’s favorite horse.  But her father, in typical horse movie style, refuses to allow her to ride because her mother, also in typical horse movie style, died tragically from a horseback riding accident.  But the stablehands allow her to sneak rides when her father isn’t looking!  After an idyllic childhood spent roaming grassy pastures and picking wildflowers with General, we are fast forwarded 10 years to find Sieun still defying her father by taking the Jockey’s Exam and General giving birth to a handsome little colt.

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Tragically, General dies during the birth.  I have to warn you that this scene was a little gut-wrenching to me.  This really looked like a birth and the mare really looked out of it in the end.  I can only hope that Korea has some sort of “No animals were harmed during the making of this movie” type laws.

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Sieun immediately bonds with the orphaned foal, convincing it to drink from a bottle and teaching it to stand and walk.  She names him Thunder.  After her father finds out about Sieun passing the secret Jockey’s Exam, he sells Thunder.  Fast forwarded another two years, we find Sieun in this mess.  Hint: She’s the one in the bright red leisure suit.

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It’s soon apparent that Sieun is pretty low on the track totem pole.  She exercises the horses but only gets to race as a “blocker,” she cleans the stables, and after a long day’s work she treats herself to a handful of popcorn and a lump of sugar.

Meanwhile, Thunder has been working as a sideshow act at a Hong Kong club with this red-haired, rottweiler owning lunatic.  Not good.

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Finally, we are introduced to our “down on his luck but has a big heart” horse trainer, Mr.Yoon, who rescues a horse with a fractured leg just before it’s carted to the meat packer.

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Shortly after saving the horse, Mr. Yoon meets with a kind and generous benefactor hoping to break into the racing industry.  The elements are all coming together now!

After a particularly bad day at the track where Sieun was ordered to sacrifice her own ride to block for a teammate, she consoled herself with a little too much beer downtown…which I imagine for a jockey who eats only sugar and popcorn is about an ounce.  As a friend loads her into a taxi cab, Thunder spots her!  He makes a valiant attempt to chase after her, but just can’t run fast enough.  Heartbreaking.  Wake up girl!  Look behind you!

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During her next race, Sieun pulls up suddenly, reining sharply to the outside rail.  The horse had fractured its leg and pulling up saved its life, but Sieun’s boss didn’t see it that way.  She is unjustly fired.  Mr. Yoon finds out and clobbers the nasty boss!  YAH!

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Then finally (drum roll please) Sieun finds Thunder!

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Sieun and Thunder gloriously return to her father’s ranch.  (Honestly, I expected more of a struggle here to free Thunder from Mr. Clubmaniac.)  Her father welcomes them both back home with kind words and an open heart.  Awwwwwww!

In a glorious culmination of all our necessary horse movie components and cliches, Mr. Yoon and the Generous Benefactor happen to just drive-by while Sieun and Thunder are out for a gallop in the countryside!  We can only assume that they will make a new, most definitely awesome race team!

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Will they head to the track and stick it to the baddies?  The cheaters?  The chauvinists?  And the horse killers?  You’ll just have to watch and see!

This movie showcases the humility of War Horse, the heart of Black Beauty, the girl power of Secretariat, the hard-won battle of Hidalgo, the underdog glory of Seabiscuit and all the heart-wrenching tragedy of Phar Lap and Ruffian.  And I kid you not, if this were an all you can eat Korean buffet, no matter how much it hurt, you would not be able to help yourself from going back and getting served some more.  The plot could best be described as a bipolar emotional rollercoaster, but somehow it works.  I laughed.  I screamed in anger.  And during the last twenty or so minutes I cried like a baby.  When Mr. Yoon puts that sentimental bell collar back on Thunder…I cried…like…a…baby.

This movie is tough to watch for a lot of reasons.  Sieun faces a barrage of sexism at the racetrack and a few male characters strike and kick her on occasion.  Also, whether this depicts how it really is in Korea or the filmmakers were just playing up the emotional impact, the horses are treated very harshly.  Even Sieun loses touch with reality after the death of a friend and isn’t very nice to Thunder.  But in the end it all fit the theme of sacrifice.  Sacrifice for winning, maybe.  Sacrifice for the thing you love, probably.  Sacrifice for the one you love, definitely.

The acting was fantastic.  The soundtrack was fantastic.  The cinematography was fantastic.  The movie’s only downside was the first thirty or so minutes that explained Thunder and Sieun’s backstory.  It was a bit boring and probably could have been covered via dialogue between two side characters if we really needed to know.

The movie was listed as “Not Rated” on Netflix, but I would say it is at least a solid PG-13 if not rated R.  It’s subtitled, so the foul language is not only spoken but written boldly across the bottom of the screen in bright, yellow letters.

I give Lump of Sugar 3 ½ Golden Horseshoes.

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