A dejected middle-aged former footballer rediscovers both a love for the game and his self respect while coaching a trio of hopeless amateurs towards competition glory in Yi Sung-il’s underdog sporting drama, Sunday League (선데이리그). A testament to the restorative power of team sports, Yi’s gentle comedy allows each of its troubled heroes to discover a positive outlet, gaining a sense of confidence that isn’t about winning or losing but mutual support and community spirit. 

As a young man, Joon-il (Lee Seong-uk) had been primed for sporting success but an injury soon brought his career on the pitch to an end. Sullen and embittered, he is a now middle-aged man with a drinking problem and a part-time job working for an old friend coaching a kids’ team while in the middle of an acrimonious divorce. As will become apparent, he is temperamentally unsuited to coaching young children, his coaching style somewhere between drill sergeant and dictatorial PE teacher essentially amounting to little more than bullying. His ill-tempered rant even reduces one small boy to tears proving the last straw for head coach Sang-man who has to field the complaints from understandably upset parents. Otherwise at a loss, he fires Joon-il from the kids team but asks him to help out on a new sideline coaching amateur players, an offer he originally turns down but later reconsiders when faced with the realities of his impending divorce and desire to maintain contact with his son. 

Each of the new students is like him in their own way stuck, looking for a way forward while blowing off steam through team games. While Bok-nam’s fried chicken shop is struggling in a difficult economy, the otherwise superrich Mr Kim is considering running for public office but privately insecure, while the last recruit Hyun-su is a shy and fragile man recently diagnosed with bi-polar who has been signed up by his wife after losing his job. It has to be said that Hyun-su’s mental health is sometimes treated as the butt of a joke in which he is often simply told to “man up” while his tendency to burst into tears on the field becomes a running gag, yet through training with the other guys he does at least begin to find a sense of purpose and contentment both on the field and off through working in Bok-nam’s chicken shop with his wages paid by the ever generous Mr Kim. 

As for Joon-il, meanwhile, he struggles both as a coach and as a father unable to get over his own sense of regret and resentment in the loss of his sporting career while his son goes quietly off the rails. Though originally reluctant and irritated by the dilettantism of his pupils, Joon-il is finally forced to face himself in realising that his own stubbornness has been the cause of all his problems and that his tendency to run away from unpleasantness rather than face it head on has only made his life more difficult. Picking up a series of innovative new coaching techniques such as using videogames to demonstrate otherwise confusing strategies while rediscovering the power of positive reinforcement he begins to coach himself back towards his best self finding a new sense of purpose on the pitch. 

Meanwhile, Yi throws in a series of of surreal gags including a lengthy sequence in which the team square off against the squad from the local church led by a football-mad pastor while a chorus of hallelujah rings out over the match as the guys finally begin to find their footing. Joon-il only took the job on the promise of a full-time salaried position if he managed to get them into the finals of a local competition, but in the end it isn’t really about winning or losing so much as self-improvement and gentle camaraderie, the guys each facing themselves while playing the game and discovering a new sense of pride in their progress Bok-nam cheerfully exclaiming that they are all footballers simply by virtue of playing the game. A warmhearted sports dramedy about positive male bonding and positivity for the future, Sunday League discovers new sides to the beautiful game in its restorative abilities affording each of the guys a new lease on life as members of a small team of plucky underdogs less interested in the winning than the taking part.

Sunday League screens in Chicago on March 13 with director Yi Sung-il in attendance as part of the 14th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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