Mr. Go is a 2013 South Korean sports comedy movie. Unless you’re a regular purveyor of Korean movies, you will recognize no names here. There aren’t even any big-name commonalities between this film and arguably South Korea’s biggest international hit of all time, Parasite; the two films share a handful of make-up and special effects artists, only. It does have a claim to fame as the first Korean movie shot fully in 3D. Other than that, it’s a reasonably unremarkable film that wasn’t even released outside of South Korea and China. In the US, the rule of thumb is that a movie’s advertising budget is equal to its reported creation budget, which means a US film has to make double what it’s reported to cost to break even. I’m not sure if that rule holds in South Korea or China; if it does, the film lost money.
Since most of you will not have seen this film, let me start by summarizing the story. This film’s protagonist is 15-year-old Wei Wei, who grew up with 50 other orphans in a Chinese circus, which, as its main attraction, features a trained lowland gorilla named Ling Ling. Wei Wei develops a relationship with her gorilla coworker and starts teaching him words. Then, as a surprise to the circus owner, referred to as grandpa by the orphans who live and work there, she teaches her friend to hit a baseball. After some time, Grandpa purchases another gorilla named Leiting. He hopes to have Wei Wei teach this new gorilla to pitch in order to increase the appeal of the act. Unfortunately, Leiting is a mountain gorilla and is far less friendly than Ling Ling. Wei Wei refuses to work with him, and he ends up chained separately from everyone else in the circus. An earthquake occurs, damaging the circus and killing the owner. Wei Wei is temporarily lost and presumed dead, but Ling Ling finds her and digs her out of the rubble. After the medics attend to her, he is recorded shielding her from the rain with his massive hand. The story becomes international news along with the fact that Grandpa’s betting has gotten him badly in debt to a loan shark who plans to sell Ling Ling.
That entire paragraph is conveyed via documentary and news exposition for the first 15 minutes of the movie. Now the story can begin. Enter super-agent Sung Chung-su (Think Korean Scott Boras, except instead of making sure your favorite player goes to a hated rival, he makes sure they go to play in another country.) He is convinced he can make millions by ramming this baseball-smashing gorilla into the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO, their version of MLB.) Then, once he’s proven the gorilla can hit and be considered safe, he will take him to Japan or the US and get paid tons of money. So Wei Wei and Ling Ling move to Korea to play for the Doosan Bears. Wei Wei doesn’t need a lot of money, at least in baseball salary terms, to pay off her debt to the loan sharks. However, she can’t seem to get a single won (Currently worth less than 1/10 of a cent) from Sung other than whatever he’s paying for both of them to eat and stay with him at his incredibly fancy home in Seoul.
The Bears, wisely, choose to use Ling Ling - who is referred to as Mr. Go for publicity - as a pinch hitter. Late in the game or when the bases are loaded, they’ll send him out to hit a home run. He never misses, so opposing teams begin intentionally walking a run home when he comes to the plate rather than give up the guaranteed grand slam. But just when you start to think this cowardly tactic will ruin everything, Ling Ling remembers he’s got gorilla arms and starts using them. Throw a pitch way outside? He can still reach it. Throw a pitch behind him? He’ll spin in place and backhand that ball out of the stadium.
Trouble rears its ugly head when Wei Wei skips a game to watch a video she has just received from the loan shark. He has captured the circus and strung up Leiting from the ceiling with chains after the gorilla beat him and his men senseless. The shark, bleeding from the mouth after the beating he took, whines that he’s willing to wait three months for her to pay off the debt, but after that, he’ll start selling the other orphans into slavery. Meanwhile, Sung tries to coach Ling Ling in Wei Wei’s absence. The gorilla becomes agitated, strikes out for the first time, and flees across the field to climb the jumbotron in centerfield. The umpires call the game; the Bears’ owner calls the police to deal with Ling Ling. They send a chopper, which leads to an action-packed chase scene as the gorilla attempts to escape by clambering all over the ballpark’s architecture. After he almost falls into the crowded stands, the owner finally calls off the police. Eventually, Wei Wei makes her way to the stadium and demands her money from Sung while Sung demands she control her gorilla. The fallout is such that the KBO votes to allow Mr. Go to play only in home games - though this never comes up again.
The Bears make the playoffs and face off against the NC Dinos. Mr. Go helps the team win the first two games of the best-of-five series, but then it’s revealed that he’s had a damaged ligament in his right knee the entire time, and Sung had kept it secret. During the playoffs, Sung is in negotiation with the owners of Chunichi Dragons and the Yomiuri Giants of the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). Both teams desperately want Mr. Go; the Dragons offer a fantastic sum of money for the star primate, but the Giants will double it if Sung will stop negotiating with their rivals and agree to a medical examination. Knowing that Mr. Go won’t pass a physical, Sung goes back to the Dragons during Game 3 of the playoffs and offers to allow them to sign the gorilla for half their initial offer if he signs immediately. The owner initially agrees but then sees something interesting on the field.
The loan shark has not been sitting idly. He and Leiting formed an unexpected friendship, and Leiting demonstrated his pitching skills - apparently, he learned how to pitch, he just didn’t want to. The NC Dinos sign Leiting, rename him Zeros, and have him pitch in relief. He pulls a Brendan-Fraser-in -The-Scout, throwing the ball so hard it regularly knocks over/injures the catcher. Non-gorilla hitters stand no chance, and Mr. Go misses games three and four, so the Dinos win behind their new relief pitcher, and the Dragons decide to sign the latest gorilla to their team.
Sung and Wei Wei bring Mr. Go back to the stadium for game five, but the ligament damage is so bad he can barely stand, and he’s so hopped up on painkillers that he sleeps the entire game in the clubhouse. Sung arrives at a final meeting with the Giants to discover that they’re desperate to beat their rivals. So desperate that they will forgo the medical examination of Mr. Go and offer a blank check to the Bears and Sung if Mr. Go appears in the game and beats the Dinos and their soon-to-be Dragon relief pitcher.
The Bears’ owner and GM follow Sung down to the clubhouse and discover that they have been deceived. They threaten Sung with the police if Mr. Go doesn’t appear in the game. Sung, realizing he’s going to go to jail, finally offers to give Wei Wei the money she needs to pay off the loan shark and restart her circus. However, Mr. Go finally wakes up and stumbles onto the field. The bases are loaded, there are two outs, and it’s evident to all that Mr. Go can’t put any weight on his back leg as a right-handed batter as he flails helplessly at the first two pitches. He switches sides and obliterates the baseball. The umpires convene and decide that the Dinos will have to gather up all of the pieces of the ball and tag a runner out to escape the game with their victory intact. The entire team on the field begins picking up tiny pieces of baseball; they somehow complete their mission and put all the fragments in the catcher’s glove just in time for him to tag the limping Mr. Go out before he can slide in safely at home. But then it turns out they missed a big chunk near first base, and Mr. Go is declared safe. The Bears win!
That would be the ending for any other movie, maybe with a couple of minutes dedicated to an epilogue. However, Mr. Go treats the audience to a fantastic display of special effects as Leiting decides he’s had enough and attacks Wei Wei, forcing Ling Ling to intervene. The two gorillas battle, and at times various other humans try to intervene. The scene is about equal parts terrifying gorilla rampage and slapstick comedy. Eventually, Ling Ling gets the upper hand and is about to kill Leiting with his bare hands when Wei Wei convinces him that they’ve done enough damage. Then we get the epilogue scene: The Bears won the Korean Series, Wei Wei went back to China and restarted her circus, Sung went to jail for four months for fraud, and the loan shark was extradited for his illegal loans. Sung goes to China to join Wei Wei’s circus after his prison time is up since his sports agent license has been revoked. The final scene shows the loan shark finding Leiting in a zoo and giving him a football before Leiting destroys several rock outcroppings in his enclosure.
There is a lot to unpack in this movie. It actually reminds me a lot of The Natural. Both films feature an over-the-top, over-the-hill (it’s mentioned that Ling Ling is 70 in human years during the majority of the movie) slugger who leads his awful team from the basement to the playoffs. Both players even suffer severe injuries towards the end of the season that prevent each from playing in his team’s championship series. Both movies feature balls destroyed by said power hitters, both have balls hit so hard they smash through scoreboards, and both see teams choose to intentionally walk the feared slugger as a method of combatting his unstoppable hitting. Both movies feature something more approaching caricatures than characters and a wider variety of story elements than was probably necessary or advised, which leads both movies to be less than the sum of their parts.
Still, one of these movies is clearly better than the other. It’s Mr. Go and it isn’t particularly close.
Many people took issue with the fact that I pointed out how over-the-top The Natural was. The problem wasn’t that it was over the top, though; it was that the over-the-top things were set in a movie that was otherwise very grounded and gritty. Mr. Go never pretends to be either of these things. It just wants to have a good time. This means that being over-the-top is only natural for a movie whose very premise is completely absurd.
The Natural gives you very little to feel good about until the final 10 minutes of the movie. Mr. Go, on the other hand, is chock full of goofy moments. These include the Doosan Bears’ fictional announcing team’s tremendous performances; they deadpan the delivery of some genuinely terrific lines. I knew I was in for a ride early in the movie, when one of them appears to diagnose Mr. Go’s emotional state correctly and then proceeds to explain that he picked up this astounding ability by watching National Geographic when he couldn’t sleep. When Sung gives up and decides to allow Ling Ling to eat his expensive house plants while they get drunk together is also hilarious, even if it is probably inappropriate to give alcohol to an animal.
To answer the question posited by the headline, no, Mr. Go doesn’t hold up. It turns out that The Natural is so bad that even being notably better than it is still not enough to guarantee a movie is anything more than almost mediocre. Still, the special effects are awe-inspiring, and it was a fun and mindless way to kill a couple of hours for someone who just wants to shut off their brain and laugh at some silliness. For those of you who wish to view it for yourselves, it’s available both on the Tubi streaming app (free with commercials) and Amazon’s Prime Video subscription.