Rebound (2023) ☆☆☆(3/4): Rebounding from the bottom

South Korean film “Rebound” follows its conventional genre playbook fairly well while making some unexpected moves at times. As your average underdog sports drama incidentally inspired by a dramatic real-life story, it will not surprise you that much if you are a seasoned moviegoer who has already watched numerous similar basketball movies ranging from “Hoosiers” (1986) to “Coach Carter” (2004), but it gradually engages us at least as ably handing its genre clichés and conventions on the whole.

At the beginning, the movie, which is set in the early 2010s (How that period feels quite distant to us now because of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, even though it is just around 10 years ago!) quickly establishes the rather dismal status of the basketball team of Jungang High School in Busan. There was a time when this basketball team was quite prominent, but it is now on the verge of becoming defunct at any point, and, to make matters worse, nobody is particularly willing to join the team at present.

In the end, the school manages to hire a new coach for the team, but the prospect is still not very bright to say the least. As an alumnus of the school who once had a promising basketball career in the past, Coach Kang Yang-hyeon (Ahn Jae-hong) is determined to try his best, but he soon finds himself daunted a lot by the poor conditions of his team. Besides its shabby training environment, the team has only four players, and two of them quickly leave right from his very first day with the team.

Nevertheless, Coach Kang does not easily give up mainly because there is not any other option for his life and career, and he soon embarks on recruiting several more players for his team. In case of Ki-beom (Lee Shin-young), this lad is understandably reluctant at first, but he eventually decides to join the team once Coach Kang manages to recruit a certain star player into his team, though he is not so pleased to see that one of the new team members is someone he has resented for some personal reason.

Anyway, Coach Kang keeps trying to get things under control, but then he comes to make a number of errors and mistakes instead. For example, he tries too hard to show his will and determination, and he stubbornly sticks to his game strategy even when one of his players points out its main weakness. When that game strategy of his is irrevocably ruined by one unexpected change during their first game, he comes to go a bit too far in the middle of the game, and that consequently leads to a big moment of shame and disgrace for him.

Around that narrative point, you can clearly see where the story and characters are going. Yes, Coach Kang comes to have lots of regret and reflection, so he desperately reaches for the second chance even though it looks like there is not much chance for him. Yes, he manages to persuade not only his team but also the school, and there is a little funny scene where he persistently pleads to the principal of the school until the principal eventually relents at him. Yes, we surely get your typical training sequence as Coach Kang and his players stick together again, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Ki-beom and his rival come to resolve their personal issue as they train along with the other team members.

During it second half, the movie naturally gives us a series of competent basketball game sequences as Coach Kang and his team participate in the National Championship. Even though you do not know much about basketball (Full disclosure: I am one of such persons), you can follow what is happening here and there in the field while the movie occasionally provides some explanation for us, and you will enjoy how the movie builds up its narrative momentum as deftly moving from one expected moment to another. Sure, we eventually get a big dramatic speech from Coach Kang in the middle of the finale, but then the movie arrives at the ending in a succinctly effective way, and the following epilogue part has considerable emotional resonance as a result.

As the main center of the movie, Ahn Jae-hong, who has steadily advanced since his likable breakthrough turn in “The King of Jokgu” (2013), did a commendable job of balancing his character well between comedy and drama, and his solid lead performance is supported by several younger performers who hold each own place well around Ahn besides looking convincing in the basketball game sequences in the film. While Lee Shin-young and Jeong Jin-woon are the most prominent ones in the bunch, Jung Gun-joo, Ahn Ji-ho, Kim Taek, and Kim Min are also fine as the other team members, and Kim Min is particularly good when his supporting character must be much more confident about himself despite his lack of field experience.

Directed by Jang Hang-jun (He previously directed several feature films including “Forgotten” (2017) besides also working as a screenplay writer/editor, by the way), “Rebound” does not bring anything particularly new to its genre territory, but it plays clichés and conventions well within its genre territory at least. I must point out that it is less impressive than Japanese animation film “The First Slam Dunk” (2022) or recent American basketball drama “Air” (2022), but it is still entertaining enough to overcome its rather predictable story and characters, and I will not grumble for now.

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