The Athletic Grand-Nephew of Kong: MR. GO (2013)

NATHANIEL:
Finally, after like four years of percolating interest, I managed to see Mr. Go, the Korean/Chinese gorilla-playing-baseball movie! And I roped you into watching it too! Now we’re gonna talk a little about how that went for us.

ROB:
I have yet to watch Mr. Go beyond making sure my American purchased, 2-dimensional television and disc player could handle the contraband Blu-ray you smuggled me. I did, however, try to familiarize myself with the game of the KBO League. I already knew a few things, like it’s considered the 3rd best professional baseball league in the world (behind the USA’s Major League Baseball and Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball). I know about this video of a mound fight (which was apparently staged during an exhibition). I know I was upset when the penny-pinching Mets didn’t sign Jung Ho Kang when he moved from KBO to MLB and they were ready to complete for the playoffs again (although that seems to have worked out for the best). I know that, while MLB was slow to embrace them,
Korea has a baseball culture that has long celebrated the glorious bat flip. As for what I didn’t know, I tried to discover if there were any real rule differences from the American game. This was hard because I don’t read Korean. Near as I can tell, the rules are mostly the same. Some of the KBO League’s distinguishing features (according to some expat blogs and subreddits) are a shorter season, a smaller number of teams, and the Designated Hitter rule is used everywhere. This means a couple of things. One, it’s a high offense league. Two, if you want to get a literal ape’s bat in the lineup, you don’t need to worry about stashing him in right field and hoping the other team doesn’t hit it there. Three, all the teams play each other more often, which lends itself to MORE NARRATIVE. Trying too hard to apply narrative to sporting events is a hallmark of bad sportswriting (beloved TV writer/producer Michael Shur used to do a blog about it with his friends). These conditionals, however, make the KBO League an ideal setting for your ape movie.

NATHANIEL:
All right, while you’re watching, a little description may be in order for our readers who likely haven’t had a chance to see it. Touted as the first Korean film shot entirely in 3D and boasting a fully CG character in the titular gorilla, Mr. Go is the story of WeiWei, an orphan girl, and her gorilla who, in order to save their circus from a loan-shark and his thugs, accept an offer from a mercenary sports agent for the gorilla to join a failing Korean baseball team (Lingling, the gorilla, is a savant with a baseball bat). Complications ensue (involving the team’s championship hopes, Lingling’s health, the agent’s career travails, and a rival gorilla pitcher). Does that about cover it?

I’ve got some thoughts about where the movie fits in as a descendant of things like King Kong, but before we get to that, I’m interested to hear what you thought of it as a movie. Because even as a person inclined to seek out and import from overseas a copy of the gorilla-playing-baseball movie, I found this movie strange. And not even a crazy kind of strange (though there’s a little of that) but just strange as storytelling. It’s a long movie, but it also opens with a sort of newsreel montage that quickly elides a bunch of story that I would have been really interested to see play out. It then slackens up the pace in the middle of the story, particularly after Lingling develops a knee injury. And while there was plenty to entertain me in the film, for a movie about a gorilla playing professional baseball, it’s surprisingly short on hijinks! So I’m curious to hear how it played for you.

ROB:
Yes, that basically covers it. For a film that mostly follows a very conventional Sports Movie story, the plot is more complex than one would expect. Like how the loan shark’s relationship with Leiting (the other gorilla, whose anitsocial behavior could be chalked up
to his treatment by WeiWei) was surprisingly functional. I’d also mention the two owners of the Japanese baseball teams that come to Korea to poach all of the KBO’s simian talent. I didn’t really understand that plot (and by extension, the agent’s plot for the back half of the movie). This may have to do with my limited knowledge of KBO and NPB contracts. This was one of several times where I didn’t grasp characters’ motivations, which slackened the middle for me.

NATHANIEL:
I agree about losing a bead on the characters’ motivations. Or at least, I think I had the gist of what they wanted (WeiWei wants to save her circus, the agent wants a big score) but the way it was dramatized sometimes felt muted. I hung in there because it adheres enough to a pretty standard story template for a movie of this kind (sports movie AND kid with exotic companion movie), but that lack of dramatic coherence made my energy flag when Lingling becomes somewhat incapacitated from that knee injury. But now I’m even more curious to hear what you made of the baseball! Let’s get some sports in this SportsAlcohol.com article!

ROB:
The knee issue was mostly curious to me. The subtitles said it was a cruciate ligament, but didn’t specify if it was the MCL or the ACL. Either way, both are very painful and the solution is a surgery with a long recovery, but it shouldn’t be the end of the world for Lingling. A traditional batting stance generates power from striding with your lead leg and pulling your non-dominant hand across your body. Lingling, in contrast, swings the bat like a forehand in table tennis from a standing position. If humans could swing that way with
home run power like Lingling, they probably would. This gives you incredible ‘plate’ coverage, as Lingling demonstrates when opposing teams try to intentionally walk him in the middle of the season but he still connects.* Also, he’s a pinch hitter that almost always hits home runs. He has to run literally twice the whole season. This is a long way of saying that Lingling is better suited than any other ballplayer in history to weather a knee injury. An injury to Lingling’s core or grip would have been more dramatic. What if he got a gash on his thumb that night he got drunk with his agent? That might make more story sense. Sadly, the fact that his diagnosis was concealed from multiple affected parties felt all too real.

*As an aside, I think the intentional walk section of Mr. Go demonstrates why MLB’s new intentional walk rule is pure folly from an entertainment standpoint.

In addition to being light on hijinks, it was light on actual baseball. I only bring this up because the baseball that was there was really well shot. Baseball is a very unpredictable sport, so film and television cheat a lot when shooting it using a lot of short cuts and closeups to fudge the action. To capture a full baseball play on camera is a challenge live TV broadcasts have struggled with for over 75 years. The best I’ve ever seen is a tracking shot in John Sayles’ Eight Men Out, where D.B. Sweeney’s Shoeless Joe Jackson
actually hit a triple to the outfield and both the ball and Sweeney were kept in frame until he slides into third. There’s nothing that good in Mr. Go, but they did try to capture a lot of live action in a single shot more than once. The level of care and attention put into live baseball photography stands out given the amount of CGI in this
film.

Besides the gorillas and their minders, no player or coach had a speaking role. This wasn’t that noticeable until the end when (SPOILERS) the final game in the movie devolves into an ape on ape brawl and the only people on the field are the umpires, players, and coaches. Where are the security guards? You go to a Mets game, and there’s a team of security guards that jump onto the field between innings and are prepared to grab any streakers at a moment’s notice. More than once in the movie, emergency services need to be called to the stadium. Why aren’t there EMT’s and Police on site already? I worked at a polo club with a fraction of the attendance of a KBO league game and we were required to pay to have EMT’s on site for every match.

Something else I want to bring up: I’m curious if the portrayal of the Japanese ballclub owners plays into some sort of stereotypes. In particular, the owner of the Chunichi Dragons is subject to ridicule because of his clothes and haircut. He says that he’s gone to the same barber for over 30 years. I mention this because it has a ripped form the headlines feel. Oakland Raider’s owner Mark Davis, the Tommy Boy of the NFL, has had the same barber since college and travels hundreds of miles to see him. Not only that, but he basically has the same haircut as the Dragons Owner!

So those are some of my initial impressions. I also have some thoughts about Wei-wei (particularly her whip and her treatment of Leiting) and the loan shark (I think something’s lost in translation because the subtitles suggest he might be a reputable loan officer but the actions of him and his gang show otherwise). Did you think that’s where the weirdness was or were you looking at other parts of the movie?

NATHANIEL:
I mean, I thought that WeiWei was kind of underwritten in general, and her relationship with Leiting was definitely part of that. She’s the the good-hearted innocent who wants to save her circus, and there’s a thread of her being seduced by Lingling’s success, but when
you couple her slightly opaque motivations and her passivity, it unbalances the movie toward Chung-su Seong, the agent. And I also wasn’t sure if I’d missed something by relying on subtitles (or maybe my slim knowledge of Korean culture or storytelling tropes), regarding the loan shark.

But we should point out that, in addition to the baseball sequences, there is some pretty good action in the film. There’s a scene where Lingling has a bit of an on-field meltdown during a game that WeiWei doesn’t attend, and it’s pretty thrilling staged (and makes exciting use of the 3D, for what it’s worth). Similarly, Leiting’s rampage and fight with Lingling at the end of the film is good stuff.

And to get back to the theme of the week, I was also surprised by how much the movie was, intentionally or not, a direct riff on Mighty Joe Young. It has the broad stroke similarity of being a story of a young woman and her ape leaving their home for show business (with Sung Dong-il’s agent in the Robert Armstrong role here), having trouble fitting in with civilization, saving the day during a late movie disaster, and returning back home. But it also includes a mid-movie scene where Lingling gets drunk on wine with the agent, just like Joe and the hecklers. And while I complained about the movie glossing over WeiWei and Lingling’s early relationship, that’s also very much like the way Mighty Joe Young introduces Jill and Joe as kids and then jumps forward to their meeting with O’Hara. I’ll also note that this kind of thing lives and dies on the appeal of exotic friend. Joe Young is a marvelous character with a lot of personality (no wonder, Ray Harryhausen did the bulk of the animation). And Mr. Go‘s Lingling himself is a winning creation. The film reportedly had one of the highest budgets in Korean film history, and it shows onscreen with both gorilla characters. The animation is quite good and both Lingling and Leiting are given clearly distinct personalities. Sadly, it looks like the film flopped in its release in South Korea, and I don’t know if it did well enough in China to warrant the sequel teased in the post-credit sting (which, admittedly, made me chuckle in delight), so this might be it for Mr. Go. Any parting thoughts?

ROB:
I would agree that there might be something lost in translation. I would definitely blame my ignorance of Korean culture (and in turn, its view of Chinese and Japanese culture), but the quality of the subtitles were not the best. There were some poorly formed sentences as well as some things that were unclear, like characters exact names and functions. This might be contributing to my confusion about the loan shark, as well as the Bears’ old scout, who didn’t act like an old scout beyond protesting a newfangled way to play baseball (with gorillas).

I too enjoyed that sequel tease. I think Leiting might be better understood in the context of a more physical sport, but that film would probably appeal to even fewer Koreans. Maybe they’ll catch up with Mr. Go now that they have some unexpected free time due to Korea being eliminated from the first round World Baseball Classic due to an upset loss at the hands of Team Israel.
I could on longer, because I’m still itching to talk baseball this early in the preseason and this movie was so confounding. Maybe we can revisit it before we see Kong 2: Kong in The Big City.

Nathaniel

SportsAlcohol.com cofounder Nathaniel moved to Brooklyn, as you do. His hobbies include cutting up rhubarb and laying down. His favorite things are the band Moon Hooch and custard from Shake Shack. Old ladies love his hair.
Nathaniel

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