‘Mr Go’ Seeks Korean-Chinese Homerun Double

Baseball-playing gorilla comedy tests limits of VFX, co-production

HONG KONG — “Mr Go,” which releases today in South Korea and on Thursday in China is a big bet by any standards.

Costing some $25 million to produce, the film is a hybrid live action/CGI comedy-drama about a Chinese gorilla who becomes a super-sized hero in Korea’s professional baseball league.

It necessitated amounts of motion capture and digital effects that are unprecedented in a Korean movie – the gorilla Ling Ling, initially animated by an actor wearing crutches strapped to his forearms, appears in about 1,000 of the film’s 2,000 shots. And it was filmed in native stereoscopic 3-D.That all required director Kim Yong-hwa to set up an off-the-shelf company, Dexter Film, and to employ 150 CG professionals.

On top of that the movie is structured as a full Korean-Chinese co-production, involving Korea’s Showbox/Mediaplex and China’s Huayi Bros. There’s a growing tide of these co-operative ventures, but it is still rare for Chinese companies to put up hard cash and take a minority position. Huayi is understood to have invested some $6 million as well as its p&a commitment. The Chinese studio named it as one of its four key movie releases of 2013.

With obstacles and ambitions of that scale, the film also needed some inbuilt advantages. It is based on a popular cartoon series “The 7th Team,” penned by Heo Young-man, which gives it an inbuilt audience awareness in Korea, though Kim has been free with his adaptation of the story. Second, Kim has a strong track record as director of hit “200 Pound Beauty” and sports comedy “Take Off.”

Kim says he was inspired by the empathy between characters in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” whereas FX supervisor Jung Sung-jin says he watched classic gorilla movies including “Congo,” “Rise of The Planet of The Apes” and “King Kong.”

Kim and Jung also report that they had to pick their VFX team very carefully and painstakingly help the animators to unlearn much of what they had previously established as working practice. Making the CG invisible was their biggest challenge

Beyond the technical challenges of financing and producing the picture, finding the right release date was tricky. And, given that baseball is a barely known sport in China (unlike basketball), Huayi insisted from the start on having a near-day-and-date outing that would draw momentum from the Korean marketing and buzz.

“Considering the two big competitor titles in Korea – Pacific Rim (July 10) and Snowpiercer (Aug 1) – the Korean release date, July 17, was the ideal timing for this film, though it meant we had to run on a very tight post production schedule,” a Showbox insider told Variety.

The Korean producer-distributor is aiming for maximum of 1,000 screens and had corralled 940 screens on the eve of release, or more than 45% of the nation’s roughly 2,000 theatres. Approximately 20% are 3-D sessions. In China, Huayi is aiming for 5,000 screens, though the number will be adjusted according to the weekend figures.

Significantly, the two companies are pitching the film somewhat differently. While Korean marketing has focused on the core 20s demographic and has subsequently spread the message to a wider group, Chinese marketing shaped the film as a general audience, family movie.

“Mr Go” is rated as a PG film (15 year olds and older) in Korea, but in China there is no classification system and all films that get a theatrical release are necessarily deemed as suitable for all audiences.

Korean marketing, headed by Showbox’s general manager of distribution Moon Young-woo and deputy manager of marketing Kim Ji-yeon, started by addressing the trade and consumer press. In order to initiate some buzz from the press, given that it is not a star-driven picture (Chinese child actress Xu Jiao is the best known performer in a role as the gorilla’s manager), they instead took journalists to Dexter’s VFX studio and talked up the concept of a 100% made-in-Korea post-production.

Later its campaign extended to TV and the Internet, the two most consumed media by the target audience. And in order to establish a brand image for the Mr Go gorilla character Showbox created a fan club, which attracted an initial 5,000 applicants through member premiums and the promise of tickets to the premiere.

For local marketing tie-ins, Showbox hooked up with Mr. Pizza, one of the biggest local pizza chains, and aimed to get some synergy from the similarity of the company and film names.

Huayi’s Zhang Da Jun, head of production / distribution, and Jasper Yang, head of marketing / PR, put the emphasis on 3-D rather than baseball, and stared their campaign earlier.

As early as last December, they saw it important to tie in the trailer with other big 3-D films including “Chinese Zodiac 3D,” as well as other family-oriented pictures.

On the eve of the release, the odds of Showbox hitting a home run were shortening as all the local online ticketing agencies put “Mr Go” at top of the advance booking charts.

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