“Perfect Game”, the latest South Korean baseball film, has plenty of the baseballs to pitch to the audiences. Some are balls and they do not work, but I have to admit that there are also lots of strikes that managed to get me involved in the story it tries to tell. This sports drama throws its balls with diligence and honesty till the end credit rolls, and it earns its finale which most of its target audiences are well aware of.
Because I am not a baseball fan, I do not know much about one of legendary matches in South Korean baseball history the movie is based on(I was four at that time), and neither do you, perhaps. On May 16, 1987, two famous Korean pitchers, Choi Dong-won and Seon Dong-ryeol, ferociously competed with each other in their final game to be enshrined by ardent Korean baseball fans. The former was an established star pitcher, and the latter was a rising star pitcher. They had been constantly compared with each other at that time, so the clash between these two talented pitchers was inevitable, and the time had finally come for them when they were chosen as the main pitcher in their respective teams.
The first half of the film is about the situation and the people surrounding this match. With its pumped-up score and the utmost serious attitude of the people populating the screen, it is like watching an epic war film version of sports drama movie. Besides Choi Dong-won and Seon Dong-ryeol, there are also other team players, the team managers, the team owners, the government officials, the eager reporters busy with talking about them or bombarding them with lots of questions, and, above all, the zealous baseball fans cheering for their teams. I have no idea about how they really were during the 1980s, but I have to say South Korean baseball fans depicted in this film scared me a lot due to its vivid presentation of them. Outside or inside the field, they are so aggressive and violent that they make British hooligans look like the Red Cross volunteers. I wonder – do they remain same as before even at the 21th century?
Though it does not dig deep into it while busying itself with lots of materials, the movie makes a small, interesting point about how the South Korean government at that time was involved with South Korean sports world. It was a turbulent time when the demand for democracy from South Korean people was increasing day by day, and the government used the entertainment and sports to distract the people from the politics. It seemed to work at first, but the government did not succeed in the end. The people had indeed a fun time as shown in the movie, but they forgot very little about the dictatorship oppressing them, so the government began to step back only a month after the big match between Choi Dong-won and Seon Dong-ryeol.
While the movie starts literally gathering the storm before the game, the buzz surrounding these two players keeps being heightened. Though they are rivals, Choi Dong-won and Seon Dong-ryeol were like brothers during their early career. The rivalry certainly exists between them, but both have respect and admiration toward each other. They do not particularly want to play against each other, but the situation pushes them to the showdown everyone around them has longed for, and both know that they do their best no matter what will happen in the field.
Though it sets to be the recreation of the real-life incident, but the movie is more like a generic sports drama due to lots of its melodramatic devices. The most blatant element in the story is an aging catcher named Man-su(amiable Ma Dong-seok) who has never gotten the chance to walk into the field. His wife is frustrated about him, mainly because he has been not much of help to his financially struggling family(Being a baseball team member does not always guarantee an affluent life, you know). His young son is not so proud of his dad who has never appeared on TV, though he wants to grow up like his hero, Seon Dong-ryeol. In such a setting like this, when do you think Man-su will get the chance of his lifetime? Do I spoil your fun if I say he does not let down his family as well as his team at the eleventh hour?
And what about a female reporter named Seo-hyeong, played by Choi Jeong-won? I understand that the movie wants to explain lots of things to the audiences like me who have a little knowledge on South Korean baseball, but Choi Jeong-won is wasted in a role as thankless as the female characters in those old World War II films. Except the scenes giving us the basic information, the movie does not know what to do with this functionary character. During the finale, I wanted to ask her: “Why the hell are you wandering around here, ma’am?”
As a consequence, the movie looks more like a fiction, and Choi Dong-won and Seon Dong-ryeol look like the stereotypes rather than the real-life figures. However, thanks to the strong, unpretentious performances by Jo Seung-woo and Yang Dong-geun, who do not feel any urge to imitate their real-life counterparts, they grow on us as the characters we root for; we like them both and we want both of them to win. Fortunately, their sports is baseball, so some of you know such a thing is possible in this case.
When the game eventually begins, the movie is more focused and intense then before with increasing power. Their final match was not the longest baseball game in the world record, but think about this: they did pitch the balls for nearly five hours throughout 15 innings without being replaced. The shoulders are hurting, the fingers are bleeding, the bodies are exhausted, but both of them cannot step back in this ultimate test for their talent and endurance. The movie rarely loses the grip on us throughout this long game, and it was sometimes exhausting for me to watch, but I also felt that the characters were far more exhausted on the screen.
Although there are flaws which could have been easily excised for more improvement, “Perfect Game” is a good, if not perfect, sports drama. The director/writer Park Hee-gon makes a competent product with the sincere nostalgia toward to the match to be remembered. I am sure there are lots of people who can respond to his film more emotionally than me, but that does not mean that the younger audiences born after the 1980s cannot enjoy this entertaining film. This is a good match to behold.
Where to watch this movie?
SC: So far, it is available only in South Korea.