South Korean film “Not Out” is the latest example of those drab and miserable movies about angry and disaffected South Korean lads. While there are some recent better cases including Lee Chang-dong’s rather overrated “Burning” (2018), this one is hopelessly inert and uninteresting due to its barebone plot and superficial characterization, and I became disappointed more and more as watching it sluggishly trudging from one bland moment to another during my viewing.
The story of the movie is mainly about Gwang-ho (Jung Jae-gwang), a struggling high school baseball player who has aspired to be a professional player someday. During the opening scene, we see him getting another moment of victory during the latest game, and he seems to be good enough to be selected at the upcoming professional baseball draft, but his coach later suggests that he should choose an alternative given to him instead because the chance of him getting drafted by any major professional team is rather slim. Because of his firm belief on his talent and potential, Gwang-ho unwisely ignores this suggestion, and, not so surprisingly, he comes to regret and despair a lot on the draft day.
Gwang-ho later tries to look for other alternatives for continuing his athletic career, but he only finds himself more frustrated more without getting any help or support from others around him. While the coach is nothing but a bully who apparently cares more about a certain other team member whose parents are incidentally affluent enough to give some bribe, Gwang-ho’s estranged father, who has run a small and shabby noodle shop alone without much care since his wife died, is not so supportive of his son’s aspiration, and he does not respond much even when Gwang-ho desperately pleads to him for financial help at one point.
Anyway, Gwang-ho keeps trying to grasp any possible opportunity for continuing to play baseball. For example, he begins to consider applying for several college baseball drafts, but he needs some help and support from the coach, and the coach is not so pleased about this at all, because his mind is already set on helping that other team member as much as he got paid by that other team member’s parents. Despite the coach’s indirect warnings, Gwang-ho adamantly insists on going his way, and that consequently causes lots of conflict between him and several team members including that other team member, who do not mind ostracizing him at all as shown from one certain scene.
Around that narrative point, we are supposed to root for Gwang-ho more in addition to understanding and empathizing with his hope and aspiration, but the screenplay by director/writer Lee Jung-gon fails to flesh out its hero more, and Gwang-ho consequently comes to us as nothing but a willful sullen lad who surely deserves the outcomes of his foolish choices. Although he seems to be trying really hard on the screen, Jung Jae-gwang is usually forced to look merely sour and disgruntled throughout the film, and the result is one of the most wooden performances I have ever seen from South Korean films since Doh Kyung-soo in “Room No.7” (2017).
In the meantime, the movie also tries to generate some tension as Gwang-ho gets himself involved more in a certain shady illegal business, but this part is so predictable and artificial in many aspects that you will not care that much about what will inevitably happen. Blatantly pushing its hero into more despair and frustration, the movie also throws lots of plot contrivances into the story, and the finale is particularly unconvincing due to a number of implausible coincidences including the sudden convenient appearance of one supporting character to stop Gwang-ho from another stupidity at the last minute. In addition, the following last several scenes feel banal and hollow without much emotional base, and I actually felt like being cheated around that point.
I also must point out that the supporting characters in the film are seriously underdeveloped without much personality or human depth, and the performers surrounding Jung are wasted a lot as a consequence. I am sure that they are not bad performers at all, but they are miserably limited by their bland and colorless characters, and that is particularly evident in case of Song Yi-jae, who happens to be the sole substantial female character in the story but sadly does not have many things to do from the beginning.
As I come to dislike it more and more, I try to search for anything good in “Not Out”, but my hands still remain in frustrating emptiness, and my mind keeps coming back to “Baseball Girl” (2019), a modest but solid South Korean sports drama film about a female high school baseball player quite determined to try her best for getting drafted by a major professional baseball team. That movie may not aim that high from the start, but its story and characters are still interesting nonetheless thanks to good writing, competent direction, and strong performance, and it really touches us as its heroine does try her best instead of wallowing in anger and frustration just like the mindlessly pathetic hero of “Not Out”.
In conclusion, “Not Out” gives me one of the most depressing movie experiences I have ever had during last several years, and I truly hate those sloppy and incompetent moments in the film. Incidentally, I happened to watch Czech documentary film “Caught in the Net” (2020) right before watching “Not Out” today, and I would rather watch this very disturbing and uncomfortable documentary again instead of ever giving a second chance to “Not Out”.