Racket Boys (2021) First Impressions

Although I can’t claim to be any kind of sports fan (certainly not in the last 2 decades), there is something inherently appealing about sports themed dramas in general and how they unfold. The sports side of things (whether it’s baseball or badminton) provide a backdrop and a context in which social and ontological concerns are played out. Tried and true themes like friendship, camaraderie and teamwork are often woven into the fabric of broader metanarratives such as the hero’s journey or in this case, that of the underdog overcoming impossible odds to see triumph. Some of my favourite US films of all time like Field of Dreams and Seabiscuit are fine examples of how these kinds of “sports stories” are told to have broad appeal beyond those having specialist knowledge. Racket Boys is no different in that regard. The writer Jung Bo-hoon here is well-known for penning the brilliant Prison Playbook which despite what the title suggests does have a distinct sports angle to it.

Yoon Hyeon-jeong (Kim Sang-kyung) a former badminton champion, now a coach for a high school badminton team is in the grip of financial woes and finds himself manoeuvred into taking up a coaching position out in rural South Korea located in Haenam County with his children in tow. His baseball-mad son, Hae-kang played by the talented Tang Sang-joon last seen in Move to Heaven) is none too pleased about leaving behind not only his school friends but also a sport he excels in. Accompanying them is daughter and much younger sister, Hae-in (Ah Se-bin) who brings a certain amount of precocity and obligatory cute to the table. Mum, on the other hand, is referred to once but is noticeably absent.

The uprooting and transplantation of the Yoon family to Ttangkkeut Village is given humorous treatment as the city slickers experience a dose of culture shock when none of their expectations are met on arrival. From the house that comes with the job to the waning badminton team that is in need of a coach, Hyeon-jeong is made to feel as if he’s been… well… played. The rural vs urban mythos divide is given the usual treatment with a certain amount of relish — to meet and subvert expectations. Then we meet the new neighbours who are exactly and yet not exactly what one might see in these parts.

To make matters worse for the new arrivals, the existing boys badminton team lose their access to school boarding and end up cohabitating with the Yoons or more specifically taking over Hae-kang’s room and becoming a fixture in the household. This set-up is entirely calculated to bring the racket boys of Haenam Seo Middle School closer together particularly when Hae-kang is roped into being the fourth member of the team. At the start Hae-kang keeps his distance (and it’s fascinating how that’s achieved) but not for long. There’s really no time for Hae-kang to wallow in self-indulgent pubescent angst due to parental choices. He has to make do and gradually he finds a way to fit into that milieu — out of necessity and out of sympathy.

At some level the show does have resonances of When the Camellia Blooms in part due to the rural setting and the presence of the super talented Kim Kang-hoon as Yong-tae, the youngest member of the team. It touches on similar sorts of themes related to migration and fitting into an “alien” context — to be the outsider coming in and generally not to jump to conclusions about anyone too quickly.

The writer’s fingerprints are all over this from the quirky subversive (even bleak) humour to the whimsical and heartwarming interactions. There are even hints of blossoming teenage “first love” romance in the offering. The character dynamics are sufficiently diverse and endearing to hook audiences into the various scenarios whether it’s sports-related or just everyday village life occurrences. The best part too is watching the relationships grow as the Yoons become more of a presence in Haenam and find their place in that rural community. It isn’t just the children who are on a growth journey but Dad, Hyeong-jeong who is easily led astray and has something of an irresponsible streak. He is depicted as something of a mild-mannered wishy washy loser dad that probably needs a good kick in the pants to man up. Life may be hard but one can’t help feeling that he is really his own worst enemy.

Four episodes in, and there’s really very little to fault about this. The show knows exactly what it is, the direction is solid and the cast is pitch perfect. Racket Boys is unabashedly a sentimental growing up tale that promises plenty of laughs and warm fuzzies galore all throughout.