Based on a comic that ran in a monthly comic magazine in Korea in the late 1980’s, Mr. Go tells the story of a 300kg gorilla, Ling Ling, that grew up in a circus with a girl named Wei Wei. Wei Wei’s grandfather, the owner of the circus, had an unhealthy interest in baseball, resulting in Ling Ling being trained as a baseball player and later on, a huge financial debt that fell on Wei Wei’s lap when he passed away. Fifteen year-old Wei Wei is suddenly responsible of taking care of the numerous kid members of the circus and on top of that, the local loan sharks demand that she soon pays up her grandfather’s debts.
Thanks to Ling Ling’s unusual talent, notorious baseball agent Sung Choong Soo comes scouting him, promising enough money for Wei Wei to pay off the debt and keep the circus running. Together, they go to Korea, where Ling Ling gains instant fame as an unbeatable batter, giving the famous baseball team Doosan Bears a winning streak. However, in the midst of all the cheers, Ling Ling’s health problem is overlooked and the loan sharks back in China have got a trick up their sleeves that will come to haunt Wei Wei.
Director Kim Yong Hwa made the successful Take Off back in 2009, which garnered 8 million viewers and is still one of my most favorite feel-good movies of all time. Even then, Kim has already showed enthusiasm towards VFX, with the movie’s impressive ski jump sequences. And now Mr. Go shows a very welcome upgrade in that regard. Asia’s first digital character Ling Ling used animation, motion capture and facial capture technologies realized by 300 animators in Dexter Digital, a part of Dexter Studio, set up by Kim himself. With a budget of 22.5 billion won, more than half of it was spent on VFX, and what an accomplishment it is. The impressive VFX is on par with that of Hollywood and certainly sets a new benchmark for Korean VFX. But not only that, this is also the first Korean movie to be shot entirely in 3D.
Unfortunately, the laudable feats accomplished in the technology department fail to save the storyline. The appeal of adapting this comic is definitely understandable—a bat-swinging gorilla coached by a 15 year-old girl playing professional basketball in Korea. Seems like a great premise for a fun PG-rated family movie. But the result is nowhere near fun enough. The story moves forward very monotonously, providing little entertainment, and for 132 minutes it just never seems to succeed in winning your heart. Ling Ling and Wei Wei don’t provide much emotional depth for the audience to get invested in them, we don’t seem to be able to care for them at all. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) might be heavily criticized, but you can’t deny the ability of the computer-generated Caesar to invoke your emotions. In Mr. Go, there is no such thing. Xu Jiao’s Wei Wei can even be quite annoying at times. Luckily, the ubiquitous Sung Dong Il is still great as sports agent Sung Choong Soo, although I don’t mind seeing him in less movies, let’s admit it, he’s hilarious. But the best part of the film for me is, without a doubt, Odagiri Joe’s cameo as the owner of a famous Japanese baseball club, with an uncompromising bowl haircut. The man just can do no wrong.
Compared to Kim’s previous work, Mr. Go is a far step backward, VFX matters aside. Nevertheless, even though Mr. Go might not be as good as what the hype and the budget promised, it is still a proof of how exciting the Korean cinema keeps getting. It has shown that the country is able to compete in terms of technology, and it’s improving faster than you expect. I sure hope this doesn’t mean that more Korean filmmakers will focus on VFX and go Hollywood-boring (that would really, really suck), rather it should add more variety to the Korean cinema. Another interesting part about the movie is its co-production with China. Huayi Brothers Media invested a quarter of the film’s budget, and it seems like South Korea is going to do more and more co-productions with other countries in the future.
At the time of this writing, Mr. Go has been screened in South Korea for 17 days and has had a little more than 1 million viewers—obviously less than expected, especially with the amount of heavy marketing the movie has done. It certainly isn’t doing well in the box office, far overshadowed by the less marketed Cold Eyes, which has just surpassed 5 million viewers. With the imminent arrivals of heavy contenders like Bong Joon Ho’s long awaited Snowpiercer and also Ha Jung Woo’s latest, The Terror Live, the future doesn’t look too bright for Mr. Go. Well, I guess the Korean audience is hard to trick. However, the movie is going to be screened in many other Asian countries so let’s see if overseas audience can be easier to please.