(I know, I used the same picture in the previous post about this drama, but this version of the poster looks cleaner and cooler.)
I watched MBC’s new weekend baseball drama, Strike Love [2009 외인구단], without any preconceived notions or expectations. I never read the original comic on which it is based, and I don’t much like sports (baseball being at the bottom of those I can endure watching when father/brother/friend figures insist upon it). But I had an inkling, based on the preview clip, that this drama might be watchable. And lo, it is. Quite.
I was sucked into Strike Love in the first 60 seconds. After the first episode, I sighed, “Aw, man,” because I was hoping it would be bad so I could clear off my plate a little. After the second episode, I figured this meant I’d have to rearrange my list of drama priorities.
SONG OF THE DAY
EZ Hyoung – “Floating World.” There’s a nice song that plays several times in Strike Love, and it reminds me of EZ Hyoung whenever it comes on. So here’s some EZ Hyoung. [ Download ]
For now, my drama-watching order is something like this (based on a very unscientific gut reaction on what I’m most drawn into):
- Story of a Man – Because it’s AWESOME. Exciting and intense.
- Return of Iljimae – Beautiful, soothing, able to be enjoyed slowly like sipped wine.
- Strike Love – Shows promise of being well-characterized and heartwarming.
- Accidental Couple/That Fool – Also has heart, particularly in Hwang Jung-min, but the story isn’t as strong.
Which means that the following get shoved into maybe-probably-not territory:
- Queen of Housewives – I want to keep going with this (it’s funny and zippy) but probably won’t have time until it’s over.
- Beautiful Legacy – The weekend series pulled in strong ratings and stars Han Hyo-joo and Lee Seung-ki; apparently it’s pleasant but trite.
- City Hall – Yawn.
- Cinderella Man – Inoffensive, but double yawn.
- A Star’s Lover – Wait, I was going to finish this one up, wasn’t I?
- Ja Myung Go – Nope.
CHARACTERS AND SETUP
Like I said, I was drawn into the opening sequence right away, even though I had no idea who was who or what the significance of this game was. Good sports dramas are always more than about sports, and this is why I think (hope) Strike Love will be good, because already there is a lot of stuff going on in the opening, and hardly any of them have to do with the mechanics of baseball.
First we have Oh Hye-sung (wonderfully expressive actor Yoon Tae-young), nicknamed “Kachi,” star pitcher for the Seobu Wolves team. He goes up against his rival, Yoosung Dynamics’ star batter, Ma Dong-tak (Park Sung-min). Hye-sung manages to strike Dong-tak out twice with his trademark super-fast pitches (156 km/h), but on the cusp of pitching a perfect game, his arm starts to pain him.
This draws the notice of two ladies watching the game from work — Choi Um-ji (Kim Min-jung) at a clothing shop, and her younger sister Choi Hyun-ji (Song Ah-young) at a restaurant. Um-ji is expected to cheer for Dong-tak, but secretly she’s rooting on Hye-sung, while her younger sister is open in her Hye-sung pride. Both worry that his pitching arm is giving out, just as Dong-tak steps up to the plate for the third time.
With his face contorted in pain, Hye-sung draws up all his strength and recalls Um-ji’s voice telling him not to give up — on baseball, or on her — as he throws strikes once, twice… and winds up for the third…
There’s clearly history between these four, and we zip back in time to get to its beginnings.
EPISODES 1 & 2
(First off, let me just say that the child actors are really, really wonderful. One of these days, Korea really needs to produce dramas featuring the young stars — not just using them in childhood flashbacks — and let them act their hearts out, because there are a heckuva lot of very strong budding actors, and they deserve more attention. I know educational channel EBS produces “youth dramas,” but they are low-budget and low-key. I’m talking decent budgets, high production values, and prime-time exposure. Sigh, I can dream.)
In his youth (early middle school, by my estimation), Hye-sung is a good kid who gets drawn into the wrong crowd. It’s not out of a rebellious streak, but pure survival, as his frequently drunk father gambles away all his money and Hye-sung is left to feed them.
With his strong and accurate right arm, Hye-sung plays a crucial role in a gang of delinquents who commit petty theft as a team — the leader usually snatches a purse, the other kids put obstacles in their pursuers’ way, and Hye-sung throws rocks to take them down. His best buddy Baek Du-san (sometimes shortened to Baekdu) — overweight, good-hearted, not too bright — faces similar family hardships and also thieves to provide food for his family.
Hye-sung’s world tilts on its axis a little when the new girl at school, the pretty Um-ji, befriends him. She had seen him participate in a gang job, but she believes he’s a good kid at heart. Because Hye-sung is something of an outsider, her sweet, affectionate overtures are totally new to him. As a result of her influence, he also decides to quit the gang and go straight.
Hye-sung’s father tries to run off to evade debt collectors, ignoring his son’s scared pleas not to leave him behind. He does love his son, but he’s ultimately a very weak, selfish man, and he makes a run for it. He’s caught, and carted off for his gambling debts.
Hye-sung begs to assume responsibility for his father’s debt, and the debt collector takes a liking to the boy’s eyes (I believe this will be a recurring theme for Hye-sung) and gives him one chance to come up with 5 million won overnight (roughly $4,000).
His ensuing desperate scheme involves stealing from his former gang, who take Um-ji hostage in retaliation. Hye-sung and Um-ji make a run for it, and although he’s able to fend off their pursuers with a well-aimed baseball throw, this escapade also makes her family furious at him. They forbid her from seeing him again.
It also incurs the dislike of visiting friend Ma Dong-tak, the polite young boy who likes Um-ji and already shows signs of being a “genius batter.” Not only is Dong-tak angry that Hye-sung put Um-ji in danger, he starts to feel threatened by her relationship with Hye-sung.
Hye-sung has never learned to play baseball, although he looks yearningly at the other kids playing in the field, and Um-ji encourages him to give it a try. Therefore he starts practicing on his own, which gives him trouble at first — he can throw a stone with deadly accuracy, but that’s completely different from pitching a baseball properly.
Regardless, Um-ji has utter faith in Hye-sung. While the girl’s acting is decent, it’s the boy playing Hye-sung who makes you tear up to see how much her unwavering faith means to him. He’s the kind of guy who would otherwise berate himself, letting his familial instability and lack of love push him into insecure thoughts that he is worthless. It’s Um-ji’s bright, sunny affection that makes him want to be a better person. (*tear*)
Dong-tak, on the other hand, resents having to put up with Hye-sung, and tells him meanly (when Um-ji’s not around):
Ma Dong-tak: “A person dislikes someone for two reasons. One is because the person’s done a lot to him. The other one has no reason. He just hates him. Like with you.”
Hye-sung: “But I’ve just started to like you. You’re supposedly a genius batter — let’s fight it out. I’ve decided I want to play baseball for real.”
Boys will be jealous boys: Dong-tak issues a challenge, scoffing that there’s no way Hye-sung could get one pitch past him. Hye-sung accepts, and is given a bucket of baseballs.
But Dong-tak really is a hitting genius, and he solidly connects with every single ball. Hye-sung gives the last one a little extra juice, which results in a graze instead of a direct hit, but still, he loses the challenge. On the other hand, a shady-looking man watches from a distance and approaches him afterward, telling Hye-sung he likes the look in his eyes. He hands him a business card that identifies him as Director Sohn Byung-ho of the oddly named “Outsiders Baseball Team” (which is the Korean title for this drama). The man figures they’ll meet again someday.
Um-ji continues to be Hye-sung’s biggest supporter, even when he tries to withdraw and retreat into himself when his father is put into jail for his debts. He tries to push her away, but she insists on accompanying him to visit his father, which gets her in trouble with her family when they stay out all night (they’re out of bus fare).
Um-ji’s mother is particularly upset with Hye-sung, thinking he’s corrupted her good little girl, and slaps him. Um-ji begs her father to help, and he shows a little more compassion than his wife, taking Hye-sung back to jail to meet his father. But her mother doesn’t like the changes in Um-ji, and therefore the family keeps their plans to move away a secret from her.
Um-ji only finds out when little sis Hyun-ji lets it slip on moving day — which is the day she buys Hye-sung a birthday present of a glove and baseball — and she runs to his house to see him one last time. Unfortunately, he hears about her move from Du-san at the same time, and they miss each other. He finds her gift and a note at home, which tells him to become a top baseball player, one whom she can watch on television.
A friend reminds him that they can watch the train leaving from a deserted field, and the group of three boys race to get there — where Hye-sun pitches a ball to show Um-ji that he will do as she said and become a great player.
It’s to these kids’ credit that we look eagerly to their adult reunion, as we pick up years later, when Hye-sung has matured into a formidable pitcher. Still using the glove Um-ji gave him and bringing a stack of the letters she wrote him over the years, he comes up to Seoul for major league tryouts, meeting up with his buddy Du-san. In his free time, he goes through a list of possible addresses to track Um-ji down.
Du-san works as a cater waiter for upscale events, like the one being held for the corporation Yoosung — which is the sponsor of the Yoosung Dynamics, the team that Ma Dong-tak has just signed with.
Dong-tak drags along Um-ji, who dislikes being paraded around as his girlfriend, because in her mind, she is NOT his girlfriend. But Dong-tak is the kind of guy who refuses to listen to her when she tries to break things off, saying they’ll “talk about it later” — which really means something like, “Your feeble little woman’s mind cannot understand, therefore let me make the decisions.”
It’s worse because after Um-ji’s father died, Dong-tak was a huge help to her family — so much so that her selfish mother likes having him pay their bills. Um-ji tries to keep their relationship strictly platonic, but has difficulty putting her foot down because she feels guilty as the recipient of all his help.
At the event, Um-ji is hounded by reporters who assume she’s Dong-tak’s fiancée. Upset, she leaves the event, muttering about Dong-tak’s high-handedness in calling her his fiancée — briefly attracting the attention of a passerby: Hye-sung. It’s only after she’s gone that Hye-sung realizes that the woman may have been Um-ji, and runs out after her, to no avail.
Tryouts. Du-san alludes to “that thing” in their past that kept Hye-sung from becoming the best, which is why he’s trying out here, where most of the guys range from out-of-shape to average players.
But everyone perks up when Hye-sung throws his first pitch. 156 km/h. The directors look up in amazement and wonder how he’s never been discovered before, and thus at the end of the day, he’s feeling pretty good as he leaves with Du-san. (Du-san is out of shape and a poor hitter, but his one undeniable strength is his ability to catch every single one of Hye-sung’s throws. No mean feat when his pitches are as strong as they are.)
At the same time, Um-ji is attempting to break up with Dong-tak, who isn’t accepting her insistence that it’s really over, that she’s not marrying him, that she’s never thought of him as more than an oppa. Unwilling to accept her decision, he pulls the same “Let’s talk later” trick, but she’s not going to let him drag this out again.
So when he tries to usher her into the car outside the baseball stadium, she refuses. Hye-sung, walking out of his tryouts with Du-san, recognizes her from the night before.
He approaches as Dong-tak angrily tries to get her into the car, while Um-ji struggles. Hye-sung steps between them and tells Dong-tak, “Um-ji says no.”
Acting is a plus. Several characters have mentioned Hye-sung’s eyes — well, actor Yoon Tae-young (Legend) has wonderful eyes as well. His eyes and his expressions are full of emotion, whether they’re showing pain, concentration, or gentleness. I think I’m going to love him and his character, which hits a good balance between toughness and vulnerability. (Btw, the weird hair is something of this character’s trademark style — pointy and scruffy are to Hye-sung what curls were to Gu Jun-pyo.)
Kim Min-jung also has great eyes, and it’s great seeing her as this cute, lively character who doesn’t overdo the cute. A lot of actresses seem to mistake “bright” and “cute” for “ear-gratingly annoying,” and I’m glad she doesn’t fall into this trap. There’s a sweetness to Um-ji that owes a lot to the childhood representation, which I hope Kim continues to portray.
I think Park Sung-min as Ma Dong-tak is a little one-dimensional, but (1) it’s only the first two episodes, so who knows what’ll happen, and (2) I’m inclined to believe that’s how his character was written in the first place. From what I’ve read, it appears the characters are generally said to be adapted well, and Dong-tak as the sleek, privileged batter is sorta the quintessential foil to Hye-sung’s scruffy up-and-coming pitcher.
Not much has been seen of Song Ah-young‘s Hyun-ji character, but I think she’s adorable.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of the supporting characters, too. How glad was I to see the always hilarious Ahn Sun-young! She hasn’t done much yet, but she’s a scene-stealer, for sure.
The above scene with Baek Du-san, played by Im Hyun-sung, is the scene that gave me hope that Strike Love would be a drama to give its characters depth. I think a manhwa adaptation always runs the risk of falling back on its established personalities, but as far as I can tell, each actor is doing his/her part, and I loved the depth shown by Du-san when Hye-sung asks why he won’t try out with him. He wants to try out together, like old times, and can see just how much his friend loves baseball. So can we, as Du-san gazes wistfully over the baseball field, the view of which is the main reason he chooses to live here.
But Du-san says — unconvincingly — that he has no regrets about giving up baseball. In an earlier scene, Hye-sung seems to feel pity for how Du-san gets yelled at at work, but Du-san brushes it off with a joke, saying he has a great job that pays the bills. Baseball is just a far-off memory for him now. The fact that this supporting character conveys such pathos really impressed me — and I, like Hye-sung, was therefore really excited to see him show up at tryouts.
I love dramas with a strong visual appeal. Story always comes first, but good direction is icing on the cake, and while I wouldn’t say that Strike Love‘s directing is as good as Story of a Man or Return of Iljimae, there are moments that are very nicely done. It’s definitely better than Accidental Couple, which is a drama whose directing is rather noticeably flat.
The baseball sequences — what little we’ve seen so far — are edited well to keep suspense high, and I think (hope) that they’ll continue to add tension to what are sure to be many nail-biting games in the future.
I’m going to approach Strike Love with a little hesitation, if only because I have so many other dramas I want to get to. I will say that I was happily surprised by the first two episodes, which left me eager to find out how the story continues.
What made these first two episodes work for me was their ability to make me really care about these characters, not just for the actors’ sake but for the characters’ sakes, too (contrasted with, for example, Accidental Couple, where the connection is with Hwang Jung-min the actor). With a lot of original material available to adapt, there’s also an abundance of story to work with. The drama looks good, is acted well, and the story seems solid so far. Yes, we’ve got the requisite love entanglements already apparent, but I appreciate having another drama out there that is about much more than just romance. Not that I have anything against that, as you know!