The implied purpose of Choi Yun-tae’s Baseball Girl is to upend all the cliches attached to sports movies while at the same time following them to the letter. Thematically, Choi wants to show as honestly as possible the obstacles that women face when trying to make it in professional sports on the same terms as men, and sometimes this clarity of intention gets in the way of the drama. An opening title card informs the viewer that since 1996 women have been allowed to play on professional baseball teams in South Korea with men. The card doesn’t say whether any women have actually made it that far, but the movie makes it appear that attitudes are much more difficult to change than rules. The titular protagonist is Joo Soo-in (Lee Joo-young), a pitcher for her high school team who is determined to make it to the big leagues. By the time we meet her, she is already a sullen figure, having been beaten back for her ambition after causing some excitement in the press years ago when she became the first girl to ever play on her high school varsity team in more than two decades. However, the acclaim is conditional, because her talents are only considered exceptional because she’s a girl, and she resents this characterization.
So when a scout for the pros comes to her school during the start of her senior year and chooses only one player for tryouts, she doubles down on that ambition and decides to work on her fastball so hard that no pro team will be able to reject her, at least not fairly. The team’s new coach, Jin-tae (Lee Joon-hyuk), himself a frustrated wannabe pro pitcher, is frank and cruel: She’ll never make it, not because she’s a girl but because she just isn’t good enough. Jin-tae’s get-over-it approach just works to make Soo-in’s determination that much more stubborn, and we get the usual training montages that end with her hands bleeding. Eventually, Jin-tae, recognizing how his own thwarted dreams are contaminating his judgment, advises Soo-in to develop a knuckleball, since she can’t hope to compete with stronger, larger pitchers with just a fastball. Meanwhile, that other cliche of the adolescent sports movie, the parent who berates her child into thinking more rationally about the future, is installed in the background. Soo-in’s mother (Yum Hye-ran) scolds her constantly, saying if she doesn’t soon choose a credible goal in life she’ll end up like her useless father (Song Young-kyu), who has wasted most of his life trying, and failing, to pass the national estate agent’s certification test.
What Choi avoids, however, is more significant than what he includes. The movie is almost perversely low-key. Even when Soo-in achieves some measure of victory, the director pulls back so as not to place too much importance on it in the larger scheme of things. Part of this strategy is to keep the viewer wondering what Soo-in can possibly achieve in a world where everything is stacked against her, but it also makes the viewer appreciate the subtle bits of narrative that give meaning to Soo-in’s existence, like her relationship to Jeong-ho (Kwak Dong-yeon), the male teammate who was selected by the scout and who has been her best friend since they played together in Little League. Though there are hints of genuine affection between the two, Choi doesn’t do the obvious and make the relationship a potentially romantic one. If anything, these two souls, through what is portrayed as a very special rapport, seem to understand life better than anyone else in the movie, which is why it’s slightly disappointing that Choi doesn’t extend this sensitivity to the other female characters in the story. Soo-in’s mother never transcends her cinematic stereotype. Her best friend, a frustrated dancer, is simply on hand for dull contrast. Choi’s decision not to make a big deal of Soo-in’s gender while conveying the idea that it’s her distinct personality that makes her a good athlete is compelling, but he doesn’t quite do enough with it. In the end, the cliches win.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
Baseball Girl home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2019 Korean Film Council