Opening-night pic in Hawaii drew lots of laughs for its attractive mix of genre send-up, deft slapstick and period funkiness. “YMCA Baseball Team” had a so-Seoul opening in October, and may come across as too specific in its regional concerns and not quite serious enough about them to hit one into arthouses abroad. But this is still an extremely accomplished effort for first-time helmer Kim Hyun-Seok, who wrote “Joint Security Area.”
Beautifully lensed pic starts in 1905, when missionaries introduced the Great American Pastime to then undivided Korea. In a small town near Seoul, game holds special appeal for hangdog Hochang (comic great Song Kang-Ho, of “The Foul King”), a scholar’s son who’d rather be tossing a ball — any ball — than hitting the books. That the newfangled sport is taught to him by Jungrim (Kim Hye-Su), the prettiest Korean ever to work for the Y, only sweetens the pot.
Soon, several other village people sign up for the YMCA cohort, and after a number of humorous basic-training segs, they win all their early matches against even less-experienced teams. Various conflicts threaten the team, as with a rich man’s refusal to throw the ball to a former servant, but these take a back seat to Hochang’s rivalry with Dae-Hyun (Kim Joo-Hyuk), a handsome athlete who shows up on the scene, for Jungrim’s attentions.
Caught up in these everyday concerns, most of the players barely notice their country is struggling with the much stronger Japan, which has essentially taken over Korea, with help from some venal bureaucrats. It takes a long time for Hochang to realize his lady love and Dae-Hyun might be working for an underground movement out to punish traitors in the ruling class.
Obviously, there’s a lot going on here, and the more auds know about Korean history, the better. Helmer’s ambition is notable, but he is best suited to the comic elements. Unfortunately, Kim never met a joke he didn’t like, and he has a tendency to reprise perfectly good sight gags until they stop working. (Slow-motion Peckinpah entrances, for example, that end with some macho dude tripping over his own feet.) Synthesizer score that sounds cheap when things should be soaring, or should at least get funky, also undercuts pic.
Being at heart a sports film, “Team” culminates in a high-stakes game against a Japanese army nine which has been playing “besibaru” for some time, and would be humiliated by loss to “inferiors.” Ending is a bit pat — although the scenes of primitive, on-field color commentary are certainly amusing. Gu Shin is memorable as Hochang’s seemingly humorless father.