I picked up a copy of YMCA Baseball Team because it had all the ingredients for success in the credits. The cast boasts big stars like Song Kang-ho, Kim Hye-soo, and Hwang Jung-min. The writer-director Kim Hyun-suk was later responsible for the modestly enjoyable Cyrano Agency. It’s got a great period setting at the turn of the century, ripe for tensions with the recent takeover of Korea by Japan. And absolutely none of that saves the film from its barely present story, which is frequently inert and barely held together by the thinnest of plot threads.
The story is ostensibly a semi-fictional account of Korea’s first baseball team, but doesn’t dwell too deeply on actual historical events. Rather it focuses on characters, detailing them mildly in vignettes. The principal character at hand is Lee Ho-chang (Song Kang-ho), a yangban whose father (Shin Gi) runs a school. Although he is supposed to be groomed to be a scholar like his father to take over the school in the absence of his older brother, he really prefers playing sports like football (a.k.a. soccer).
One day while hanging out with his friend, Ryu Kwang-tae (Hwang Jung-min), Ho-chang kicks his ball into the yard of the local YMCA and is introduced to baseball by the American missionaries that run it with Min Jung-rim (Kim Hye-soo), a well-traveled diplomat’s daughter. Slightly smitten by Jung-rim and fascinated by baseball, Ho-chang, along with many other locals including Kwang-tae, signs up when the YMCA organizes a Korean baseball team. After a little training and the joining of ace pitcher Oh Dae-hyun (Kim Joo-hyuk), they maintain an undefeated record as baseball grows in popularity around the country.
Then the Japanese impose themselves on Korea and the YMCA baseball team loses their training ground to the local Japanese forces, led by Hideo (Suzuki Kazuma), a friendly former rival of Dae-hyun’s from Tokyo. They challenge Hideo, but win or lose, the YMCA baseball team will struggle in this new era as the team members face political consequences, internal conflict, and pressures from their lives outside of baseball.
YMCA Baseball Team does have a few things going for it and one of its strongest elements is Song Kang-ho, who consistently is able to pull off his unique mixture of pathos and comedy at the same time. The film takes advantage of that ability to throw several awkward situations at him, including a laugh-inducing scene where a love letter he wrote is read at a funeral as the deceased’s will. However, even the film’s several funny moments exemplify one of the film’s main problems: they don’t cohere into a solid story, if even a story at all.
Instead, the film feels a bit more like a 108-minute montage and part of this is because it fails to establish much of a story at all, the only real conflict early on being Ho-chang’s love of baseball being contested by his father’s wishes for Ho-chang to run the school. Unfortunately this plot element is only checked into a couple times over the course of the film and so it hardly holds the film together.
In fact, the film struggles to find any stakes at all for any of the characters until more than halfway through the film, which leaves the story quite inert until the Japanese arrive and even by then, the film dawdled so much on pointless scenes that it has hardly establishes the characters or the team and what it represents enough to make the threat to the team meaningful. The story simply either needed to be focused more on the personal stakes of the characters or the great stake of the team, something that even the most mediocre of sports films are still able to put together.
The direction doesn’t help. There are several scenes that open from black and fade back to black, deepening the feeling that those scenes are unconnected vignettes or parts of a montage, except that several of those scenes simply exist for “comedy” while not terribly connected to the story and end up feeling more like gags, like the singing debut of the team. It’s a gag at best and while the comedy works within the context of the scene, the scene’s purpose in establishing the team as the country’s best has already well been established by the montage of undefeated games and the newspaper articles. By the time the scene shows up the story needed to move along to the next point, but by spending time on this unnecessarily and only mildly funny scene, the whole film loses momentum.
This is why the film feels inert for most of the viewing as it is simply not driven by a story rooted in conflict, but more like leafing through a series of events in the life of the baseball team.
Furthermore, the film frequently undercuts its main moments with comedy and while it helps keep the proceedings from getting melodramatic and is sometimes hilarious, like when Jung-rim gets beaned on the head with an errant football from Ho-chang while trying to convince the nascent team of her credentials as a female coach, there are times when it simply dissolves or breaks whatever tension is built up in the scene, further draining the film of forward story momentum. The film’s final moment, a cameo from Jo Seung-woo, is pretty funny given its reference to Chunhyang, but also ends up sacking the film of any climax with its Mong-ryong-ex-machina that never actually resolves anything with the story.
Oh, and the film’s modern day bookends also have no point whatsoever. If the movie were more about the love of the game, living up to a legacy, or doing your best when the pressure is on, perhaps the bookends might have passed. But YMCA Baseball Team is hardly about anything at all and takes a whole lot of time to demonstrate it.
I wanted to like YMCA Baseball Team. And there are parts of the film I like. I like the performances. The actors are mostly good and even the small roles given to the American characters are atypically not horrible. I liked the period detail and setting with the production team doing well to dress up the film nicely.
I even think the comic bits in the film are funny, but those some comic bits are often the same reason why YMCA Baseball Team was often hard to tolerate. They frequently slow down what little story there is. And when the film isn’t distracted from trying to add gags, it still never gets around to telling some semblance of a story, failing to really build and develop either the character or the team. The film sinks from the start because it doesn’t introduce any stakes or meaningful conflict and simply coasts along until the credits roll, making its short run-time seem painfully long.
It’s not that there isn’t an interesting story to be told about Korea’s first baseball team. I don’t doubt that there is. But YMCA Baseball Team is not that story and while I think some might still be able to appreciate the movie for the goofy awkward comedy and Song’s predictably hilarious performance, this film is proof that good ingredients alone are not enough for an engaging film. 5/10.
Note: YMCA Baseball Team is available on Korean Region 3 DVD with English subtitles from Korean retailers like Aladin and Bandibook.
Tags: featured, Hwang Jung-min, Kim Hye-soo, Kim Joo-hyuk, Song Kang-ho