The girl and the game…
At first glance, Baseball Girl seems to be a solid biopic. The film opens with the historical note that since 1996 women in South Korea are allowed to play in professional baseball teams alongside men. The hidden insidious contradiction ingrained in this permission constitutes the basis of the story about the exceptional but excluded individual that questions systematic injustice, pursues the dream, meets the mentor, quarrels with conformist family members, finds one’s own strength and achieves the goal. It all appears to fit in place. However, the problem is the film is not based on true facts. That would not be an issue at all, if not for the puzzling logic that pervades Baseball Girl.
The film centres on Joo Soo-in, a high school athlete who is determined to become a professional baseball player. She used to be the star of the school team, throwing the signature fastball better than any boy could at this age. As time passed, the puberty reversed the physical features to Soo-in’s disadvantage, leaving her unable to meet the standards required to get signed by a professional team. However, she does not consider giving up and trains even harder, eventually winning the help and support of the previously dismissive new coach. With graduation day approaching, Soo-in is determined to avoid following her mother’s steps into the working-class future. She is to prove that women can compete against men in sports.
The premise of the story deserves to be cheered for. It questions the clean-cut legally imposed gender equality that avoids eliminating the root of the problem: male-determined standards that continue to usurp the status of the commonly accepted norm. These standards render perfectly healthy women players as “injured”, the label the main character inevitably uses to her advantage, simultaneously accepting it in order to achieve her goal. She learns how to throw a knuckleball instead of a fastball, the socialization into the professional environment has been completed, the status quo remains intact. The film’s focus on biological differences justifying the exclusion of female players from the professional league is juxtaposed with Soo-in’s behaviour and appearance that is fully determined by her dream profession. She does not especially stand out while in the group of her team members, all dress and act similarly. Her performance matches or even exceeds the standard. Baseball Girl affirms that equality in sports is achievable because the label “incompatible due to natural causes” is eventually put on all the athletes regardless of gender as they get older. However, it does not change the fact that Soo-in chooses to circumvent the system, not question its validity.
The writer-director Choi Yoon-tae points out the paradox of women inclusion in theory but exclusion in practice, Baseball Girl confronts gender issues in a very ambiguous way. Soo-in does not have any female role models around her. Her mother is pictured as the worst enemy of her daughter’s aspirations, she is the voice of reason constantly bringing the main character down. The supportive friend seems more like a paper figure, ultimately compromising and letting go of her dreams – the move that in the Baseball Girl deserves a red card, no compassion or understanding whatsoever. The high school teacher who plays in the amateur women’s baseball league is also dismissed as a quitter that is not able to teach Soo-in a thing. The most interesting thread, the encounter with another girl trying to get into the professional team, remains only an undeveloped episode that serves the purpose of uplifting the main character. The character Soo-in identifies with is her new coach, a middle-aged divorcee who did not manage to get signed by a professional team. Her success is his redemption, another story of how the woman cures man and restores him into health, physical and mental. Soo-in receives major support only from the male characters – the father, the team members, the coach, the potential rival/love interest already signed by the professional team.
Regardless of many puzzles and ambiguities in the script, the acting performances in Baseball Girl are exceptional. The winner of this year’s Screen International Rising Star Asia Award, Lee Joo-young, plays out all the flaws and the merits of the main character. She succeeds in turning Soo-in into a relatable persona, however stubborn and indifferent she might be. Yeom Hye-ran’s subtle portrayal of the mother burdened with providing for the whole family avoids the stereotypical representation as the story evolves. Soo-in’s passion and determination seem to rekindle something from the mother’s past, however unfortunately the topic is never picked up. However, the expression on Yeom Hye-ran’s face reflects all the conflicting feelings buried under the years of work in the factory office. Finally, Kwak Dong-yeon surprises with a solid performance, playing a long-term fellow team member fascinated with the main character’s determination.
Baseball Girl, as well as many other Asian indie genre films, could benefit a lot from putting the music volume down. Strange soundtrack choices majorly disrupt the flow of the narrative, leaving the visual message disconnected from the one transmitted through the audio. The cinematographer, Hwang Seung-yoon, makes Baseball Girl look very sharp and bright, the use of blue colour makes the film memorable visually. Unfortunately, he overuses slow motion that has been a cliche in sports films already for a long time, although originally the genre was abundant in innovative visual techniques.
The original paradox ingrained in the idea behind Baseball Girl had all the potential to turn the project into a truly subversive direction. However, the filmmakers chose to play the safe card, create a woman-centred story without allowing female voices to be heard. The support is expressed, the status quo is saved. The sports dramas are an excellent tool to explore the intricacies embedded in gender relations and hopefully, Baseball Girl will inspire more filmmakers to do so.
Wild Sparrow screens as part of the 19th New York Asian Film Festival 2020, streaming online in the US via Smart Cinema app from August 28 to September 12.
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