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Mr. Go
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by Jay Seaver

"Not a home run or strikeout, even if Mr. Go is that kind of a hitter."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I'm not going to sugar-coat this - "Mr. Go" is not the best possible movie that could be made about a gorilla who plays professional baseball. It's got some real problems. But barring this one doing well enough to bring forth "Son of Mr. Go", it's likely the only one we're going to get, and if gorillas playing professional baseball sounds like something you'd like, "Mr. Go" certainly has its moments.

Plains gorilla Ling Ling doesn't go straight to the Korean Baseball Organization, of course; he starts out in a Chinese circus, although when the ringmaster who trained him died in the Yilin earthquake, it leaves his granddaughter Zhao Weiwei (Jiao Xu) a million dollars in debt to banker Lin Xiaogang (Kim Hee-won). Enter perennial KBO doormat the Doosan Bears and mercenary agent Sung Chung-su (Sung Dong-il), who manage to sign the power-hitting ape as a DH/pinch-hitter for the season's second half, with Weiwei coming to South Korea as his handler. Of course, Sung just sees the KBO as a stepping stone, and Lin means to get his money one way or the other, even if it involves Leiting, the circus's other, less friendly, mountain gorilla.

Mr. Go has a script that falters in a number of ways that seem rather obvious - for instance, the entire Bears team is basically extras rather than characters, and it seems like some material about how the players and coaches react to having a 300kg gorilla and his 15-year-old girl handler in the dugout might make it into the movie, but there's nothing. The last-act machinations around potentially selling Ling Ling's services to a Japanese team may be true to what being a fan of the KBO is like, but it's boring, not about any character in whom the audience has any interest. And when you get right down to it, I'm not sure what it's supposed to be about in terms of theme. That it takes a gorilla for Sung to learn not to treat ballplayers as property? Maybe, but what it's doing with Weiwei is all over the map. Screenwriter/director Kim Yong-hwa will have scenes about how she's still a kid and in over her head, and then reward her immature outburst, or build up how she shouldn't trust Sung and then have the only way forward be to do exactly that. It makes the movie feel like it's pushing against itself needlessly when there's absolutely nothing wrong with a movie for kids about gorillas playing baseball having a simple moral lesson to it rather than complexity or, perish the thought, realism.

After all, when the movie is just having fun with the obvious comedy involved with Ling Ling standing in the batter's box and clobbering baseballs, it's really easy to enjoy. Director Kim gives the audience what it wants, whether it's balls hit a cartoonishly long distance or the local ESPN commentators dropping information that they learned watching the National Geographic channel the night before into their analysis. A big part of what makes Mr. Go work as well as it does is that Kim never takes this for granted - any scene that has a gorilla in it has the human cast acting at least justifiably wary even when there's no physical comedy going on; in fact, some of the funniest bits in that regard are practically in the background as crazy things happen on the TVs over characters' shoulders.

And let it be said that the visual effects are almost certainly the best yet done in a movie that didn't have Hollywood backing. Ling Ling and Leiting are fantastically rendered creatures, with Ling Ling in particular very expressive. The animators at Dexter Digital know both their strengths and limitations, and the movie has been designed to take these into account well enough that there are a few spectacular sequences putting Ling Ling through his paces even if there are relatively few that have direct, complex interaction between people and gorillas. The movie was shot in native 3D, and looks good projected that way, although 2D viewing will mostly lose baseballs being hit directly at the camera.

The human cast may not be given the greatest material to work with, but they pull their end. Weiwei's character arc may be a mess, but Jiao Xu - so great in Starry Starry Night - is almost always able to connect with the audience, even when Weiwei is kind of bratty. Sung Dong-il is at his best when he gets to be entirely sincere or obnoxious, but doesn't do as well when he's in a gray area. Kim Hee-won is an amusing villain,and Joe Odagiri a fun guest star of sorts as the owner of one of the NPB teams looking to sign Ling Ling.

"Mr. Go" isn't that good a movie; you could probably make an easy argument for knocking the star rating above down a notch. But as someone who likes baseball and likes absurd things like gorillas playing the game, I have to admit that the filmmakers delivered what I wanted often enough that I enjoyed the experience, even if it isn't the great baseball-playing gorilla movie I wanted it to be.

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originally posted: 07/26/14 16:20:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Yong-hwa Kim

Written by
  Yong-hwa Kim

  Dong-Il Song
  Jiao Xu
  Hee-won Kim
  Kang-woo Kim
  Jo Odagiri
  Heung-rae Kim

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