Film Review: ‘Mr. Go’

A Korean baseball team overcomes its losing streak by signing a gorilla in this technically impressive but under-dramatized 3D feature.

Josie Xu, Sung Dong-il, Joe Odagiri, Kim Hie-won, Byun Hee-bong, Kim Kang-woo, Kim Jung-tae, Ryu Hyun-jin, Choo Shin-soo. (Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, English dialogue)

A 3D baseball film that flouts all sabermetrics, “Mr. Go” depicts how a Korean team overcomes its losing streak by signing a gorilla. The achievement of this Korean-Chinese co-production is primarily a technical one, rendering a bat-swinging primate that’s adorably lifelike and anchors the well-wrought action setpieces. Still, considering how out-of-left-field the concept is, one wishes helmer Kim Yong-hwa had run more recklessly with the idea, which might have generated more mayhem and a deeper sense of human-creature bonding. Although audiences don’t give a monkey about the pic in Korea (where it’s been billed as that country’s first film fully shot in 3D), it’s been a hit in China, scoring about $17.6 million in 15 days.

Showbox/Mediaplex and mainland partner Huayi Brothers reportedly spent $12 million of their estimated $25 million budget on developing visual effects. The payoff is the creation of not one but two gorillas with distinct physical features and personalities, culminating in a showdown that deviates from the traditional man-vs.-beast endings of films like “King Kong.”

The story originated from Korean artist Heo Young-man’s 1984 comic “The Seventh Team,” but Kim (“200 Pounds Beauty”) eschews cartoonish humor and spontaneity, instead adopting a dramatic realist mode. Yet the decision to shift the protagonists’ background to China, made to fulfill market requirements, results in an artificial feel and several calculated contrivances, such as a reference to the Wenchuan Earthquake.

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Gorilla Lingling is raised in a Chinese circus and coached to play baseball as a tentpole act by Weiwei (Josie Xu), the adopted granddaughter of ringmaster Zhao (Byun Hee-bong). To raise the game, Zhao acquires mountain gorilla Leiting to make him a pitcher; however, the violently inclined Leiting can’t be tamed. After Zhao passes away, Weiwei, hounded by loan shark Lin Xiaogang (Kim Hie-won) to pay her grandpa’s debts, moves the troupe to the Sino-Korean border town of Yanbian, where Lingling is scouted by Sung Choong-soo (Sung Dong-il), manager of the Doosan Bears, a South Korean baseball team.

Up to this point, it’s hard to warm to either Lingling or Weiwei, as their upbringing is recounted perfunctorily in the form of a promo reel masterminded by Sung. Curiously absent are episodes showing how Lingling learns to bat, certainly the yarn’s most fascinating point. Nor does Lin, played as a whiny buffoon by Kim, appear threatening enough to rouse sympathy for the circus’ plight.

Things pick up once the duo arrives in Seoul, and Lingling, renamed Mr. Go, steps up to the plate at Samjik Stadium. While the 3D effects are discreetly used elsewhere, they are boldly and adroitly employed during the games, making Mr. Go’s strikes and homeruns reverberate beyond the screen. A scene of the gorilla running amok benefits from the dexterity of the camerawork by lensers Park Hyun-cheol and Jeon Dae-seong, as well as from the vivid CG detailing of facial expressions and body movements.

Nevertheless, the film’s emotional pull remains weak, as the screenplay barely observes the players’ reactions to their new recruit or generates a sense of team camaraderie as Lingling helps the downtrodden Bears climb up in the league rankings. Likewise, there’s little dramatic heft to Sung’s abrupt transformation from reviled “bounty hunter,” selling off ace players, to Lingling and Weiwei’s selfless benefactor.

Xu, who’s acted alongside computer-generated creatures in “CJ7” (2008) and “Starry, Starry Night” (2011), is comfortable performing with simulated simians. However, the 16-year-old thesp appears awkward and emotionally disengaged, allowing Sung Dong-ill’s shrill perf to upstage hers.

Sung ends up hogging more screentime than his role deserves, though his hijinks supply the film’s rare moments of laugh-out-loud silliness, as when his rare botanical collection becomes Lingling’s high-fiber diet, or in a quintessentially Korean scene of them bonding over rice wine and kimchi. Joe Odagiri, cast for his popularity in Korea, gives a campy turn as the president of Japan’s Chunichi Dragons; sporting a pudding-bowl haircut that becomes a running gag, he slyly reveals a calculating streak beneath his foppish eccentricity.

Tech credits are slick, but snappier editing would have set a jauntier mood and tightened the sprawling 135-minute running time. Music by Lee Jae-hak employs songs by Dire Straits and Taiwanese crooner Teresa Tang to tongue-in-cheek effect.

Film Review: 'Mr. Go'

Reviewed at UA KK Mall, Shenzhen, China, July 25, 2013. Running time: 135 MIN. Original titles: "Mi-seu-teo Geo" (South Korea), "Da ming xing" (China)

Production: (South Korea-China) A Showbox/Mediaplex (in South Korea)/Huayi Brothers Media (in China) release and presentation of a Dexter Films production in association with the Vastness. (International sales: Showbox/Mediaplex, Seoul.) Produced by Victor Choung, Park Sung-june. Executive producers, You Jeong-hun, Wang Zhonglei. Co-producer, Mickey Kim.

Crew: Directed by Kim Yong-hwa. Screenplay, Kim, Kim Jong-hyun, Kim Hyun-chul, based on the comic by Heo Young-man. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Park Hyun-cheol, Jeon Dae-seong; editor, Zino Kim, Kim Yong-hwa; music, Lee Jae-hak; production designer, Yang Hong-sam; art director, A.M. Kim, Yoon Jun-shik; costume designer, Chae Kyung-hwa; sound (Dolby Digital), Lee Sung-jin; special makeup, Hwang Hyo-kyun; special effects supervisor, Hong Jang-pyo; special effects, Effect Storm; visual effects supervisor, Jung Sung-jin, Lim Jung-hoon; visual effects, Dexter Digital, Digital Intermediate, Filmwiz, Kinomotive Studio, Madman Post, Triton Pix Digital, 10 FX; action choreographer, Hong Eui-jung; creature leader, Oh Ki-hong; S3D stereographer, Kim Jae-ho, Jeon Dae-seong; assistant director, Kim Hyun-chul.

With: Josie Xu, Sung Dong-il, Joe Odagiri, Kim Hie-won, Byun Hee-bong, Kim Kang-woo, Kim Jung-tae, Ryu Hyun-jin, Choo Shin-soo. (Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, English dialogue)

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