Sport and nationalism: YMCA Baseball Team

YMCA Baseball TeamWe’ve just witnessed the triumph and then despair following the ups and downs of the Korean team in the baseball world cup. And the TV commercials are now full of football references. So I just put my copy of YMCA Baseball Team in the DVD player (it’s been on my to-watch pile for rather too long). If you haven’t seen it yet, be warned that the remainder of this post contains spoilers.

This feels like a very American film, not just because of the subject matter. Some of the camera work feels very Hollywood (as the camera moves through the streets of early twentieth century Seoul), some of the humour (occasionally a little bit cringeworthy, but generally genial and easygoing), and the genre — a feelgood sports movie (yuk!). Well, it doesn’t harm every now and then to see a Korean movie with a happy ending.

What rescues the film from mediocrity is the acting of Song Kang-ho and the interesting historical context. The Koreans are taught baseball by American missionaries (thirty years after the Japanese learned the sport); trams are relatively new on the streets of Seoul, so that the scholars feel uncomfortable riding them. It’s the time when aristocrat and peasant hardly talk to each other, and of course one of the feelgood moments is when the aristocrat borrows the peasant’s own hand-made bat (the peasant has adapted his laundry bat-making skills). But most importantly, the action really starts in 1905, the year that Japan takes over Korea as a protectorate. There are the collaborators; there is the nationalistic resistance, and the climax is a return match of the Korean YMCA against the Japanese. Is the Japanese willingness to play the final match (rather than simply arrest the two resistance fighters) a sign of good sportsmanship, or is it that they want another opportunity to beat the Koreans? And when the YMCA champion pitcher chooses to complete his home run and face almost certain arrest, rather than make good the escape which is offered, are we meant to think that winning the match is more important than saving one’s skin? Or is it that beating the Japanese is more important than anything else? Sporting success and national pride is inextricably linked, as we are ever reminded in international competitions, whatever the sport.

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