Baseball Girl (야구소녀, Choi Yun-tae, 2019)

According to the title card which opens Choi Yun-tae’s Baseball Girl (야구소녀, Yagoosonyeo), an obscure regulation in the founding principles of the Korean Baseball League placed a bar on players who were “biologically non-male”, a ban which was struck down in 1996 allowing women to play professionally though attitudes it seems are much harder to change than regulations. In contrast to the grand tradition of Korean sports dramas, the contest is not a game but the right to play in one and the opposing team not talented rivals but sneering sexism and a conformist society. 

Joo Soo-in (Lee Joo-young) made the papers as the first girl to play in her high school team in over 20 years. Casting an eye around her room we see her trophies and discover that she is a talented pitcher known for top speed fastballs, but then as others seem to put it her balls are only fast “for a girl”. All she’s ever dreamed of is playing professionally and, after all, there’s nothing in the rulebook to say she can’t but that’s all anyone ever tells her. Why can’t I? she asks them, but the only answer they have for her is that it simply isn’t done. Lined up with her teammates following a meeting with a scout from the big leagues, Soo-in watches as only one of her friends, Jeong-ho (Kwak Dong-yeon), is picked. The others all walk off with resignation, accepting that they’ll need to find alternate careers but Soo-in doesn’t back down. 

Soo-in’s determination places her at odds with her working class family, her harried mother (Yum Hye-ran) continually insisting that she’s being childish and unreasonable and should give up her dreams to do something more practical with her life or risk becoming like her father (Song Young-Kyu) who is perpetually unemployed, unable to provide for the family while repeatedly failing the exam to become a licensed estate agent. There’s no shame in giving up when there’s no chance of success, her mother tells her, aligning her quest with her father’s as an egotistical act of prideful selfishness. As a teenage girl, however, Soo-in cannot help but feel the slight of her parents’ lack of support, resenting her mother’s understandable prioritisation of the ability to earn as she pushes Soo-in towards taking an office job in the factory where she works right out of high school in the belief that she’s helping her towards an economically stable life. 

Meanwhile, the new coach on the team, Jin-tae (Lee Joon-Hyuk), is quick to sideline her, viewing her as ridiculous and deluded. It’s not because you’re a girl, he tells her, it’s that you aren’t good enough, paradoxically insisting that she never could be because of the “limitations” of her female body which make it impossible for her to compete with men who also, as he points out, are extremely unlikely to make it as professional players. She tells him that he’s wrong, vowing to pitch at a speed unheard of, certain that if achieved the leagues would have to take her. Jin-tae has problems of his own, a never was player who wasted his youth trying to turn pro, became an alcoholic, and ruined his marriage. It’s understandable that his experiences have turned him cynical and mean, but something about Jin-soo’s determination, along with her strong skillset, begins to move him. Maybe he thinks it’s hopeless too, but it would be wrong to deny her the right to try. 

The biggest battle Soo-in faces, however, is from other players. Jeong-ho relates how in their little league days she was the only girl on the team and the kids mercilessly bullied her in part because the coach told them having a woman around was bad luck and made them all do intensive training to encourage her to quit. Jin-tae tries to get his scout friend to get her a tryout for a professional team, but he makes no secret of his distaste for the idea, exasperatedly complaining that Soo-in doesn’t look like a ball player (i.e., not a man, small and slight) only to later offer her an insulting token job as a figurehead for a “Woman’s Baseball Project” designed to make his big league team look more progressive than it really is. At her big try out, the guys in the dug out snigger and laugh, making fun of the batter who was struck out by “a girl” while the other coach congratulates her suggesting that she must have “trained with the boys” before giving her some unsolicited advice. 

As she tells the director of the big league team, baseball is for everyone. Her femininity is not a strength or a weakness, it simply is. She might not be as fast or as strong, but she’s smart, and brute force is not the point of the game. Some tell to her give up, that she should just play in the women’s leagues as a “hobby”, and perhaps at times Soo-in doubts herself but as Jin-tae tells her, other girls can dream because she showed them it was possible when she overcame huge prejudice to play on her high school team. Yet for Soo-in with every success it will only get harder. Even so she won’t give in, playing hardball with a relentlessly patriarchal society as she insists on the right to follow her dreams wherever they may take her.


Baseball Girl streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept.12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Old Love (재회, Park Ki-yong, 2017)

Old Love posterSome might say, it’s best to learn the lesson that life is disappointing as early as possible but there can be few who meet encroaching old age without a sense of regret and failure. The couple at the centre of Park Ki-yong’s Old Love (재회, Jaehoe) seem to have little else as they unexpectedly reunite at differing points of reunion and abandonment, longing for an unreachable past where their youthful dreams of a happier future were still possible and they could, at least, live with a false sense of hope. All that’s left for them now is to find resignation in the remaining days of loneliness and futility.

Yoon-hee (Yoo Jung-ah), who has been living in Canada for the past 30 years, returns to Korea for the Lunar New Year holiday in order to confer with her remaining family members and decide what’s best for her elderly mother now suffering with dementia. Already conflicted, Yoon-hee’s homebound holiday gets off to the worst of starts when she realises her suitcase is broken and gets caught up in an inescapable cycle of airport bureaucracy. Her exit is further delayed by a brief cigarette break during which she hears a familiar voice. Jung-soo (Kim Tae-hoon), her college boyfriend, is also at the airport dropping off his 17-year-old daughter who is on her way to study abroad in Australia. Not quite knowing why, Yoon-hee calls out to him and the former lovers engage in awkward conversation, eventually swapping (temporary) phone numbers and agreeing to meet up while Yoon-hee is in the country. 

Neither Yoon-hee nor Jung-soo give much indication of the nature of their college era relationship or why it eventually ended. They’ve obviously not stayed in touch, though there is relatively little animosity between them and no desire to argue about or dig up the past. Together once again they walk the no longer familiar streets, exchanging vague memories – a taste for octopus, forgotten left handedness, shops which have long since closed down. Their world has already disappeared and left them behind with only the burden of nostalgia to sustain them.

Long ago, Yoon-hee and Jung-soo were members of a theatre troupe. Jung-soo once said that theatre was more precious than life, yet at some point he gave it up. Now broken and dejected, he is a lonely widower whose daughter has abandoned him in resentment to look for her better future somewhere else. Yoon-hee left the theatre behind to go to Canada where she married, it seems mostly for convenience, and had a son who is now 27 years old and about to be married himself. Yoon-hee’s son returned to Korea but the pair are estranged and she won’t be seeing him on this visit. In fact she isn’t even invited to the wedding.

Yoon-hee and Jung-soo may be lonely and full of regret, but according to Jung-soo all but two of their former company fellows abandoned their dreams of the stage for more conventional lives. Mun-hee (Kim Moonhee) and Yong-guk were the two who stayed true, but Yong-guk is now seriously ill and will leave his family behind with no means of support. Later at an inn, Yoon-hee and Jung-soo run into another young group of actors eagerly debating The Seagull. Jung-soo can’t help butting in, a sad old man with some words for the hopeful youngsters. Increasingly drunk, he tells them to follow their dreams no matter what or else you’ll end up regretting your life choices. If you follow your dreams and it doesn’t work out, at least you can say you tried but if you sell out and that fails too what will you have then? Jung-soo has nothing and the emptiness is crushing him.

A lonely walk brings Yoon-hee straight into the present day when she blends into the candlelight protests, perhaps further recalling the tumultuous days of her own youth lived in the early days of a new democracy filled with a hope and promise that now seems to have retreated far into the distance. Caught at points of transit – airports, train stations, resort towns, neither Yoon-hee nor Jung-soo can find the strength to move forward. He asks her to stay, to find a home with him, as he should have done all those years ago but the moment is already gone and no amount of regret can ever bring it back. Broken by life’s disappointments, the failure of their dreams, and the emptiness of their loveless lives, Yoon-hee and Jung-soo remain trapped by the inertia of their times, just two lonely people for whom the train will never arrive.


Old Love was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Berlinale trailer (no subtitles)

Love+Sling (레슬러, Kim Dae-woong, 2018)

Love+Sling poster“Free yourself!” cries the oblivious father at the centre of Kim Dae-woong’s wrestling themed family comedy, Love+Sling (레슬러, Lesseulleo). In truth, this is wrestling of the emotional rather than the physical kind as the closeness of a father and son comes under pressure not only from advancing maturity but the unexpected intervention of the girl next door. Vicarious dreams, generational resentments, unusual sensitivity, unaddressed trauma, and self-imposed limitations all come into play when age and youth lock horns, each hoping to come out on top but eventually being knocked back to a healthier place of personal equality born of mutual understanding.

Cheerful widower Gui-bo (Yoo Hae-jin) and his son Sung-woong (Kim Min-jae) have an extremely close relationship seeing as it’s just been the two of them since Gui-bo’s wife passed away from illness when Sung-woong was small. By way of support, they are also extremely friendly with their upstairs neighbours whom they think of as extended family. In his youth, Gui-bo was a champion wrestler with Olympic dreams which he gave up to become a family man but has now passed on to Sung-woong whom he is training to become a national athlete. Meanwhile, Sung-woong is nursing a small crush on girl next door Ga-young (Lee Sung-kyung) but his plans of confessing his love after winning the big contest are dashed when she makes a big confession of her own. She’s long been carrying a torch for Gui-bo and wants Sung-woong to help her win him over.

Ga-young’s awkward confession sets off a series of uncomfortable reactions in Sung-woong. First of all he’s understandably shocked, jealous, and resentful yet also forced to realise that Ga-young’s having a crush on him is not really his father’s fault. The extremely close relationship they’d always enjoyed becomes strained for reasons that Gui-bo is unable to understand, believing that his son is just at a difficult age and under a lot of pressure thanks to his training. Gui-bo still thinks of Ga-young as the little girl from next door and is in no way romantically interested in her though when he finally learns of her intentions, he tries to do his best not to hurt her feelings, letting her down gently in the knowledge that this kind of misplaced love is just a part of growing up that she will someday likely be very embarrassed about.

Nevertheless, Sung-woong does not enjoy thinking of his own father as a romantic rival and is forced is to reassess the rest of their relationship in the face of this disturbing fact. Sung-woong can’t remember if he wrestles because he likes it, or he only did it to make his dad happy. Gui-bo insists he only encouraged his son to wrestle because he enjoyed it, but there is an unavoidable implication that he’s forced his own failed dreams onto the shoulders of his son who risks disappointing him if he is unable to achieve them. Sung-woong can’t help but resent the unfair parental expectations he’s lived under his all life, not least because they leave him uncertain, never really knowing if he has a dream of his own or has been prevented from forming one in having lived such a blinkered existence.

The burden of parental expectation is not one that can be easily shaken off. Middle-aged father Gui-bo is still under constant pressure from his own mother to remarry despite his frequent protestations. In a painful conversation after an argument with Sung-woong, Gui-bo turns to his mother to muse on the difficulties of raising a child only for her turn his words back on him in another veiled criticism of his refusal to conform to her vision of a successful future. Lamenting that his mother never listens, Gui-bo attempts to talk to his son but makes exactly the same mistake and gets his own words thrown back at him, finally realising he is no better and is incapable of allowing Sung-woong a safe space to voice his concerns without launching into a mini lecture of self-centred and unsolicited life advice.

Sung-woong’s increasing resentment threatens to tank not only his relationship with his father but also Ga-young’s with her family and the easiness that had existed between the two houses. Father and son had been all too close, locked in a mutually dependent cycle of filial responsibilities that threatened to prevent either of them ever moving forward. Like a wrestler trapped on the mat, each man has to free himself by accepting his own individual identity while allowing others to do the same. Only by a literal grappling can each man find the strength to release the other so that they might both regain the freedom to become the most authentic versions of themselves. A gentle, empathetic take on family mores and the pains of growing up no matter what age you are, Love+Sling finds space for the changing nature of a paternal bond which does not so much break as bend under the weight of mutual recognition.


Love+Sling was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)