The international premiere for director Choi Yun-tae’s new coming-of-age sports drama, Baseball Girl, brought a rousing ceremony for actress Lee Joo-young as the recipient for this year’s Screen International Rising Star Asia Award at NYAFF. At 104 minutes with a performance that’s as emotionally demanding as it is physically, the award comes well deserved for a burgeoning star who’s been a presence on the independent scene for several years now.
Choi’s feature directorial debut takes its cues from a time in Korean history where women weren’t accepted into any aspect of baseball, much less major league until 1996. With one foot out of the door as she teeters reluctantly into the proverbial “real world”, Joo Soo-in (Lee Joo-young) was her school’s star athlete for a time, having broken the glass ceiling as her team’s fastest pitcher.
Just as her childhood friend Lee Jung-Ho (Kwak Dong-yeon) takes the spotlight with a path to a professional career, Joo still finds herself hampered by the challenges of going professional. One such hurdle arrives in the form of her team’s new coach, Choi Jin-tae (Lee Joon-hyuk) who decides he’ll make things anything but easy for Joo when he learns of her aspirations.
Making matters worse for Joo is having to deal with her equally cynical mother (Yum Hye-ran) who wants Joo to focus on getting a job at the moulding factory where she works. Though her father (Song Young-Kyu), sister and best friend Ban-geul (Joo Hae-eun) are really the only people she relies on for moral support, getting her coach to see past his bolshie ways will ultimately be a factor in how far she gets, and while the process brings gradual results in their mutual understanding of one another, the next recruitment round is coming, and the competition is fierce on nearly all sides.
Eloquently acted and peformed, Baseball Girl touches on important messages and themes that all culminate Joo’s struggle. Pressing through a male-dominated sexist political hierarchy every step of the way, while Jin-tae proves to be a ballbuster at first, Joo’s resilience and consistency in her sportsmanship and ethic play a major role in bringing Jin-tae a little closer to his senses. This ultimately leads to him consulting her on matters of pitching, from her throwing technique, right down to her grip, which sort of models itself as sort of a message for Soo-in on how to embrace her own adversity.
Choi is just one piece of the puzzle though, on top of coping with Jung-ho’s success. Having grown apart over the years, their friendship has turned into something much more terse and awkward with Soo-in being more reluctant to connect times despite Jung-ho’s visible show of concern for Soo-in’s efforts. Soo-in’s biggest obstacle, however, is her mother, whose sole focus is bringing money home and having a steady income regardless of personal pursuits. With Soo-in’s father wittling away at the books to prepare for a Real Estate exam, it’s only a matter of time before things come to a major boil in the second half.
Its ample share of contemplative and intense drama aside, Baseball Girl also serves a good deal of feel-good moments to balance things out, from montages of Soo-in’s training to moments of emotive progression and transition. You’ll especially spots one of these scenes near the end of the film when Soo-in’s mother finds herself with her foot in her mouth, and it’s a moment of reprieve well deserved, and part of this comes in the lead-up with Yum and Song in a scene that really hits home.
Tackling gender norms in a movie is one thing. In Baseball Girl, our heroine demands not only equity, but is also pursuant to influence her peers no matter what. For Soo-in, quitting before even trying is not an option, and while changing hearts and minds can be a resoundingly daunting task, Baseball Girl explores this agenda in a way that invaribly simplifies things down to one simple goal for our protagonist: doing away with genderizations and being treated the same as any other aspiring professional.
Lee Joo-young may be just a handful of titles in to her film career, but her performance caliber is nothing short of remarkable alongside her cast in Baseball Girl. With the film’s NYAFF premiere, Joo-young knocks it out of the park with her performance, and should this film be your introduction to her work, it’s a feat to enjoy right down to the final inning.
Film Combat Syndicate congratulates Lee Joo-young, the recipient of the 2020 Screen International Rising Star Asia Award for the 19th New York Asian Film Festival for her role in Baseball Girl.
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