Almost one hundred years ago, America's national pastime, baseball, was introduced in Korea by American missionaries. Over the next few decades, the game's popularity grew by leaps and bounds, cutting across class distinctions and becoming institutionalized in the nation's schools. Finally, the game's popularity truly skyrocketed in 1982, the year in which the country's first professional baseball teams were formed. As a result, baseball has become Korea's national pastime, a game that is near-and-dear to the hearts of the nation's sport fans.
However, there is another reason for baseball's rise to the upper echelons of Korean sport culture. The introduction of baseball and the formation of the first team, the YMCA Baseball Team, occurred as Korea increasingly fell under the political influence of Japan, which had been aggressively expanding its empire since the late 1800s. In 1905, King Kojong was coerced into accepting the Ulsa Treaty, which turned the Korean nation into a protectorate of Japan and set the stage for complete annexation in 1910. During this bleak period, one of the few rays of hope and sources of national pride for the Korean people was their winning YMCA Baseball Team. After reading about the exploits of Korea's first baseball team, "Joint Security Area (Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA)" scribe Kim Hyun-seok was inspired to make "YMCA Baseball Team (YMCA Yagudan)" his directorial debut, which is now available as a special edition DVD release (Region 1 & 3).
"YMCA Baseball Team" begins with Ho-chang (Song Kang-ho, seen recently in "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance") sneaking into the yard of an American missionary to retrieve a lost ball. It is there that he witnesses the sport of baseball for the very first time. In addition to being enraptured by the strange game, Ho-chang also finds himself attracted to the comely Jung-rim (Kim Hye-su of "Kick the Moon"), a foreign-educated woman working with the missionary who is organizing the first baseball team-- the YMCA Baseball Team.
Without wasting any time, Ho-chang joins the newly formed team and becomes the star batter, playing alongside his best friend Kwang-tae (Hwang Jeong-min of "Waikiki Brothers"), as well as the clean-cut Dae-hyeon (Kim Ju-hyuk of "Say Yes"), who may be a rival for Jung-rim's affections. Soon, the YMCA Baseball Team, with its oddball collection of players, becomes an unbeatable force. Unfortunately, Ho-chang must keep his new pastime secret from his scholar father (Shin Gu, who appeared opposite Song in "The Foul King"), who would rather see his son become a serious scholar, a vocation for which Ho-chang is woefully ill equipped to handle.
Meanwhile, political events are transforming the significance and symbolic value of the YMCA Baseball Team's unbeaten streak. Kwang-tae's diplomat father assists in brokering the Ulsa Treaty and quickly becomes a target for assassination by anti-Japanese rebels. Furthermore, Jung-rim's father Min Yeong-hwan, a high-rank government official, commits suicide to protest the Ulsa Treaty. Finally, the team finds its practice grounds usurped by Japanese soldiers, who promptly challenge them to a game. No longer a mere game for just passing the time, baseball has become the last, best hope for raising the downtrodden spirit of a conquered land.
While the political backdrop may make "YMCA Baseball Team" sound very serious, the film follows the formula of the typical 'sports movie' and actually has a very light comic tone. Strip away the history lesson and what you have is one of those films where a loveable goofball and a rag-tag group of would-be players work hard, fail miserably, and then end up winning the season at the bottom of the ninth. If you are familiar with sports movies, such as "The Bad News Bears", then the plot developments in "YMCA Baseball Team" will be of little surprise.
But even with the reliance on formula, "YMCA Baseball Team" still has a lot going for it. Song, returning to his comic roots after dramatic turns "Joint Security Area" and "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", is likeable as the film's childlike protagonist, whose giddy innocence shines through when he sees baseball for the first time, or whose embarrassment is painfully obvious when a love letter he wrote is mistaken for a political statement. The film's humor is also welcome, such as the constant bickering between a former master and servant who must now cooperate as team mates, Ho-chang's pathetic attempts at becoming a serious scholar, and a wonderful skewering of the archetypal 'slo-mo team saunter' towards the camera. The only shortcoming would have to be the lack of attention paid to Kim Hye-su and Kim Ju-hyuk, who never get a chance to rise above the one-note trappings of their characters.
The cinematography by Park Hyeon-cheol (who also lensed "2009 Lost Memories") is also quite fetching. While watching the film, particularly how Park eloquently deconstructs the minutiae of the game, whether it is the tossing of the ball or the cracking of the bat, I could not help but be reminded of the fluid style employed by cult director Sam Raimi ("Spider-Man"). Similar to how Raimi captured the energy and grace of baseball in "For Love of the Game", Park offers up a valentine for the sport, garnishing the game scenes with lovingly shot visual flourishes that will make any baseball fan salivate with glee.
While it may not be perfect, "YMCA Baseball Team" is a terrific little film that combines fact and fiction with equal intensity in an entertaining package. With a heart-warming story of a little team that could, backed by the always-reliable Song Kang-ho and some stunning cinematography, this is one sports movie you will watch right until the very last frame... even if the ending is already a foregone conclusion.
This film is available from PokerIndustries.com