Award winning Korean director Kang Woo Suk, known for hard hitting, top quality blockbusters such as “Public Enemy”, “Silmido” and most recently “The Moss”, returns with a change of pace in inspirational baseball drama “GLove”. Based on a true story, the film is an underdog sports tale, revolving around an irascible baseball player who is pushed into coaching a team of hearting-impaired youngsters, and reunites Kang with regular collaborator Jung Jae Young, who stars alongside fellow “The Moss” alumnus Yoo Sun. Sharing the spotlight with the headliners are a supporting cast of youthful faces playing the baseball team, including Kim Hye Sung (“Jenny, Juno”), Lee Hyun Woo (“God of Study”), and Jang Ki Bum (“The Righteous Thief”).
Jung plays Sang Nam, a top baseball star whose off the field tendency to get into drunken brawls has pushed his once glittering career close to the edge. In an attempt to rehabilitate his image, his manager and friend (Jo Jin Ung, “Bestseller”) arranges for him to coach a small town team of hearing-impaired high school students, a task which Sang doesn’t exactly approach with much enthusiasm, not least since the boys turn out to be less than stellar players. Gradually though, he becomes impressed with their determination, and along with plucky assistant coach Ms. Na (Yoo Sun), he grits his teeth and tries to whip them into shape for the upcoming national tournament.
Although “GLove” follows the inspirational sports underdog template pretty much to the letter, it benefits hugely from Kang Woo Suk’s usual dynamic, grounded approach, which mixes character development and crowd-pleasing themes to entertaining effect. The film does have a more driven feel than most of its peers, and like its baseball team never plays for pity, attempting to inject a little grittiness to the formula. The film does work well as an inspirational drama, precisely because it doesn’t try too hard in this respect, and is reasonably realistic, not building towards some all-conquering championship victory, but simply winning one game, and more importantly towards its characters winning self respect and a place in society – both Sang Nam and the boys struggling against the perception of them being disabled. Despite an at times grandiose soundtrack it generally avoids the worst clichés and melodramas of the genre, and holds the interest through what could in other hands have been a dangerously overstretched running time of two hours and twenty minutes.
Similarly, whilst Sang Nam himself is very much a standard protagonist figure for this kind of film, Jung Jae Young’s solid performance lends the character an all important air of internal conflict. The script also shows the good sense not to suddenly transform him into a caring, sharing nice guy at the usual third act checkpoint, and achieves a character arc which though predictable is engaging and rewarding. Indeed, if anything it’s his aggressive, often quite mean spirited character which drives the film and the baseball team, as he really puts the young players through their paces with harsh training and motivational speeches designed to roughen them up rather than mollycoddle. Oddly enough, through this the film does recall Kang’s “Silmido”, with Sang Nam effectively taking on the role of drill sergeant, and this too helps lift the film above the kind of saccharine which might have been expected.
His hard boiled temper plays off nicely against Ms. Na’s far more motherly approach, and its this contrast which underscores the film and their relationship, making for a far more interesting dynamic. Although the two do inevitably draw closer towards the final act, any hints of romance are unforced and avoid undermining the rest of Kang’s good work. The film as a whole has a focus on friendship and self belief, and though it would be perhaps going too far to label it a macho affair, it does have a markedly tougher feel than most sports themed efforts.
This ensures that “GLove” still very much has the feel of a Kang Woo Suk film and that it sits surprisingly comfortably alongside his previous more thriller-oriented output. Given a stern though likeable edge by Jung Jae Young in the lead, the film is certainly one of the best of its type from Korea in recent years and again proves that Kang is one of the very best directors of blockbuster fare.
Woo-Suk Kang (director) / Kim Ki-Beom (screenplay)
CAST: Jae-yeong Jeong … Kim Sang-Nam
Yoo Sun … Na Joo-Won
Shin-il Kang … Gyo-Gam
Jin-woong Jo … Charles