Mr. Go (Mi-seu-teo Go)

China/Korea (2013) Dir. Kim Yong-hwa

In China fifteen year-old Wei Wei (Xu Jiao) inherits her grandfather’s circus and a huge debt to vicious loan shark Lin Xiaogang (Kim Hee-won). Part of the circus is a baseball playing gorilla named Ling Ling who was trained by and thus bonded with Wei Wei. Lin offers to buy Ling Ling and call off the debt but Wei Wei refuses, instead accepting an offer from a Korean sports agent Sung Chung-su (Sung Dong-il) to make enough money to repay the debt by making Ling Ling a baseball superstar in Korea. Renamed Mr. Go, Ling Ling is an instant hit but back in China Lin holds the orphans at the circus hostage giving Wei Wei three months to pay up. But when Lin notices that the circus’s other gorilla, a feral beast named Leiting has a knack for powerful baseball throws, he has an idea.

This Korean/Chinese collaboration may have a story that seems pure 1970’s Disney but is in fact based on a 1980’s manhwa 7th Baseball Club by Heo Young-man. One would have assumed an animated version would have surfaced by now – although technically one could argue that is what we have as the main star (and his nemesis) is a superbly rendered and utterly convincing CGI creation sharing screen time with the live action human cast. The first film in Korean history to be shot entirely in 3D and with specially created animation programmes employed over four years to ensure maximum reality of the apes, this family outing is helmed by Kim Yong-hwa, noted for such comedy fare as 200 Pound Beauty, making this his most ambitious film to date.

In a sort of Tarzan in reverse, we see young Wei Wei domesticate the mammoth Ling Ling from the get go (surely letting a gorilla near a baby is questionable parenting?), teaching him how to understand words, letter, sounds and commands. This was reciprocated during the earthquake when Wei Wei was trapped and the beast searched endlessly for his young mistress in the rubble until he found her. With the almost psychic bond between the two and Ling Ling’s ball hitting skills, the prodigious Wei Wei is soon the talk of the sports world when the renowned “Bounty Hunter” Sung arrives in China to usurp loan shark’s purchase offer for Ling Ling. Hoping the money promised by Sung would clear the debt, Wei Wei leaves the circus and Korea behind unaware that the materialistic Sung has no plans on being up front with the payments to Wei Wei, instead plotting to sell the rechristened Mr. Go to a Japanese baseball team owner.

Amazingly, Mr. Go adapts to his new surroundings easily, seeming at home on the baseball pitch as he was in his cage. Things start to falter when Wei Wei misses a game and Mr. Go runs riot without her, causing the sale to the Japanese to be speed up. But when a second buyer shows interest, Mr. Ito (a sedated but highly amusing turn from Jo Odagiri), things start to get heated. This is compounded further by a knee injury to Mr. Go and the arrival in Korea of Lin and Zeroes – the ape formerly known as Leiting – whose brutal pitching sets up a true clash of the titans on the baseball field.

The centrifugal force of the story is not the novelty of a gorilla playing baseball – this is quite oddly accepted with minimum fuss – but the relationship between girl and gorilla. Wei Wei – a pitch perfect and assured performance from Xu Jiao, who you may recognise as the young boy (!) from Stephen Chow’s 2008 CJ7 – walks a fine line treating Ling Ling both as a beast and a human, communicating by either shouted commands, signals from a whip and even monkey grunts. Despite her precociousness and earnest mission to save the circus, Wei Wei is still a fifteen year-old, prone to getting caught up in the limelight as anyone, only to achieve redemption after a terribly contrived wake up call.   

Elsewhere we have Sung who is all about money and success. Everything in his house is expensive so having a seven foot 600 plus lbs gorilla rip up his plant collection to make a bed brings tears to his eyes. As we learn he is a product of his environment but by the end, he learns the necessary lessons of humility and people before profit. Much of the film’s humour comes from Ling Ling taking over Sung’s glossy apartment turning it into his own ape pad, culminating in an amusing lad’s night hitting the bottle.

Visually this film is top notch and the hard work on the animation paid off with arguably the most realistic CGI representation of an animal seen to date, rivalling, if not surpassing some of Hollywood’s finest efforts. A genuine triumph for the medium. In many ways Ling Ling comes across as more human than the humans in the film and is unquestionably and not unsurprisingly the main sympathy magnet of the cast. The face off between him and Leiting is just as impactful as any climactic Godzilla (Japanese version) punch up!

While this is pure simplistic family entertainment, Mr.Go suffers from an overlong run time that splutters into the final act rather than charging in after an emotional crisis point. The story is very well constructed although once again the Korean need for international recognition shines through with its desperate lean towards the US market, with the manipulative melodrama of the third act. But don’t for one minute think this a bad film as there is plenty to enjoy here.

If this is aimed at the family market then it needs some prudent trimming to make it more accessible, especially for overseas audiences, otherwise Mr. Go is a perfectly fine slice of simplistic, visually appealing entertainment.