Racket Boys (2021) Lessons from the Cosmic Teacher

Non-spoiler review

I was reminded while ruminating over the new series Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha at Janghaven Forums and elsewhere, that I had neglected to do a final review of Racket Boys which came to a satisfactory conclusion some weeks ago. It was a show that I enjoyed from start to finish and it was one that brought great anticipation and joy to the rest of our household. In the end we were all in complete agreement that it was memorable piece of storytelling (my oldest still gleefully chanting the never-gets-old mantra-gag “Who do you think I am? I’m the One and Only Yoon Hae Kang”) and we were heartily amused (and stirred) by the antics of the titular racket boys and their able supporters from the village.

In all honesty I was never worried that this would be a letdown after such a sure-footed start. Jung Bo-hoon, writer of Prison Playbook, ensured that this would be an unqualified winner with his penchant for toying with expectations and subversive humour. Spectator sports aren’t really my thing as a rule (I completely ignored the Olympics this year) but sports providing the context for life’s big crucial lessons can go places in the hands of a skilled storyteller. Jung coming off his collaboration with Shin Won-ho shows he’s no one hit wonder at least accomplishing a wonderful juggling act constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing tropes in new and fresh ways. While on the subject of Shin Won-ho, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Prison Playbook cameos that are peppered all throughout the series as easter eggs for those in the know. Kang Sang-yoon (“Valjean”) in particular has an extended guest role.

From my perspective there are two major lessons coming out of this heartwarming tale of change and growth. The first (which was the case for Prison Playbook as well) is the reality that what seems to be the worst thing that ever happened to someone ends up being the best thing or one of the best things that befalls them. With the benefit of hindsight of course. Underpinning that theme has to be the belief that everything major and minor happens for a reason. Growth comes when challenges are overcome and one survives the crucible of fire with a better sense of self and the forging of genuinely deep connections with one’s neighbours (in the broader sense). The Yoon family uproot from the big city with no inkling of what they’re in for and end up in rural Jeonnam as newcomers who have to navigate a foreign country as well as the pitfalls of coaching a fledgling team of a low profile sport with little financial or moral support.

The other important theme elaborated here, linked with the first, is the value of second chances especially when human beings err as par for the course. It pervades the entirety of Prison Playbook and is also very much a mainstay of the Hospital Playlist franchise. From the Yoons and the newly arrived couple to the village chief, the miracle of second chances are on offer for the taking. This magical moment heralds a period of new beginnings — a chance to wipe the slate clean, start afresh and embrace alternatives to what life has to offer for the unhappy, dissatisfied residents of the village. Dad, affectionately known as Coach (Yoon Hyung-joon) goes from being the quintessential wishy washy loser to someone who can hold his head up high on the courts when all is done and dusted. He is a character that epitomizes both themes gifted with a conspicuous trajectory.

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Aside from the writing, a large part of the show’s charms comes from the lads and lasses that are central to the story. The casting is perfect and each come with their own personality and baggage. What they have in common is a love for the game of badminton although it is never the case that their path to true expression of love for the sport is a smooth run. Their individual stories are beautifully woven into the larger tapestry of achieving maturity and beginnings. Tang Sang-jun who is also good in Move to Heaven plays Yoon Hae-kang formerly a junior baseball athlete who is a reluctant addition to the badminton team. Soon he finds his groove and form firm friendships with the local badminton boys who quickly become a permanent fixture in his bedroom. 1 becomes 4. 4 becomes 5 when the nerdy In-sol worms his way in and earns their respect. Hae-kang’s relationship with Granny (an empty nester) from next door is pure sweetness and plays out in poignant and humorous ways. When the former city boy wants fast reliable wifi and a yummy supper to top it off he goes to her place to chill. Despite all the busyness of school and training, Hae-kang manages to find time for a little romance on the side with an old… wait for it… childhood friend, Se-yoon who also happens to be the nation’s best female junior badminton player.

The Haenam boys, the underdogs and the emotional core of this tale will make anyone barrack for them as they overcome hurdles great and small together while they plough a path to triumph through learning important lessons like teamwork, adaptability, and having laser-like focus on the things that matter. True to the template they come from behind their favoured rivals and gradually make it all the way to the finals of the National Junior Sports Festival through sheer hard work and a little strategic savvy. It's a joyful growing-up story that serves as a reminder that we are all lifelong learners on a journey. No one can do it on their own. That's why having friends and family are vital for human flourishing. For In-sol, the latest addition, who seemingly had everything, badminton become a means to an end. The boy who seemingly has it all — academic creds and social status but what he craves is true friendship. And undoubtedly to be part of something much bigger than himself.

It’s always sad to have to say goodbye to well-made television but all good things have to come to an end. Fortunately for the audience, the end is fitting and satisfying with the promise of better things ahead for everyone we’ve come to know and love. Life in all its dimensions must go on. There will be more games to play, more competitions to win or lose. More importantly there’s no end to the lessons that one is never too old to learn and keep on learning.

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