Do you enjoy stories about underdogs and the tenacity and triumph of the human spirit? In these troubling times, why not watch a feel-good movie that’s not only touching but also funny and romantic?
And, don’t you want to check out a film where Ha Jung-woo speaks only one line and Gong-yoo two? The former is now critically acclaimed (and also fiercely loved by yours truly) and the latter has legions of fans thanks to a 2007 drama where coffee is the operative word. Yet in this five-year-old gem of a sports movie (based on a true story), the real star is one Lee Beom-soo.
In an interview, Lee Beom-soo said that Superstar Mr. Gam (a.k.a. Mr. Gam’s Victory a.k.a. Superstar Gam Sa Yong, 2004) is the most special piece of work for him personally and it’s easy to see why. He’s perfect here.
The year is 1982. Gam Sa-yong (Lee Beom-soo) is employed at a factory but aspires to play baseball professionally. When asked (much later in the movie) for the reason, he answers simply, “Because I love it.”
Sa-yong’s wish comes true when he’s selected by Sammi Superstars (his company’s professional baseball team) to be one of its pitchers. His mother (played by the wonderful Kim Soo-mi) greets the news with dismay. “Sports can’t be a career,” she says. But her opposition is half-hearted; her love for her son and her desire to see him succeed at his goal is stronger than any concern about him finding work that will pay well. Unknown to Sa-yong, she will become his biggest fan.
Also rooting for Sa-yong is his older brother, Sam-yong (Jo Hee-bong). On the surface a loudmouth and spendthrift, he is proof that you can’t judge a book by its cover. It is soon evident, from the family’s new color TV to other giveaway signs, how much Sam-yong cares for his mom and younger siblings. They may live in rather shabby accommodation, but the family is close-knit and content. One of the movie’s most moving scenes (one that brought instant tears) is not on the playing field but in the family’s little store. I love Kim Soo-mi here, and Jo Hee-bong is a hoot as Sa-yong’s most vocal supporter.
Unfortunately, there is little for Sa-yong’s family to cheer because his team is one of the worst in Korea’s newly-formed professional baseball league. Other teams get feted by their fans, but Sammi Superstars’ players and bus get pelted with fruits by angry fans who can’t believe their team can lose one game after another with no letup in sight.
Unlike Sammi Superstars, the OB Bears are on a roll. Best pitcher in the country is theirs, and he’s already tied the record for most consecutive winning games (nineteen). Just one more win, and he’ll be most winning pitcher ever. No wonder chants of “Park Chul-soon! Park Chul-soon!” reverberate around the packed stadiums whenever he (Gong-yoo) plays.
(Fans of Gong-yoo who want to see him at his sweatiest should not miss this movie. He speaks just two lines but compensates for the deficit with his arm power and photogenic posturing on the field. He may just be a supporting character, but he has enough screen time to make his fans happy. In contrast, whose idea was it to give Ha Jung-woo so few scenes? *throws fangirly tantrum*)
Not only is Sa-yong’s team not winning any game, Sa-yong himself has zilch opportunity to turn things around. Simple reason: he doesn’t get to play. Sidelined game after game, he is eventually fielded but only as relief for the regular pitchers in the dying minutes of the game when the stadium has emptied out and the Sammi Superstars look certain to add yet another loss to their embarrassing tally.
Sa-yong naturally feels down about his lowly position on the team, but the wonderful thing (and one of the many reasons why I love this movie) is that he doesn’t wallow in his misery. He just keeps plodding on, looking for that one break. His coach tells him, “In whatever situation you are in, do your best. That’s a pro.” Easier said than done, of course. Wrapping up losing games is like washing the dishes after everyone has eaten their fill and left the table. A thankless chore.
But there’s a bright spot in Sa-yong’s life (besides the support of his family) and it comes in the form of Park Eun-ah (Yoon Jin-seo). The first time he sets eyes on her is when she comes to his mom’s store to buy fish jerky and he undercharges her and even throws in an extra piece. It’s obvious from his smile that he’s instantly attracted to her and she seems to feel the same way. We learn later that Eun-ah is an usher at the baseball stadium; Sa-yong’s first request for an autograph will come from her.
(Eun-ah’s character is fairly subdued here, but Yoon Jin-seo plays her with a wide-eyed childlikeness and innocence that’s natural and sweet. I like her as an actress and think she has a very promising career.)
Baseball is a team sport, so the actors who make up the Sammi Superstars have their own significant moments in the movie. Among them are Baek Do-bin and Ryu Seung-soo (both of whom I adored in Fight and Mixed-up Investigative Agency respectively). Watch the movie to find out if the special pre-owned “amulet” that Ryu Seung-soo’s character offered to Sa-yong did anything to break the team’s losing spell.
But wait. There’s one more player that I absolutely must talk about, or at least devote more lines to than the barely audible three words that he spoke in the entire movie.
The first time I watched Superstar Mr. Gam, I hadn’t yet seen Ha Jung-woo. But after becoming a loony fan in December 2008 and learning that this was one of his early works, I of course had to rewatch the movie. If you’re watching this for Ha Jung-woo, stay vigilant (blink and you’ll miss his first scene, it’s that fleeting) and patient (you’ll be rewarded in the end; emphasis on the word “end” because he doesn’t appear again until the movie is about to end!). But even if his role is more akin to extra than supporting cast, I love him here. And, without putting down anyone else, it makes me very happy knowing that he has since surpassed the rest of the cast in terms of fame and critical acclaim. That’s humble beginnings for you.
Among the movies in this genre that I’ve watched, Superstar Mr. Gam is easily my favorite. Both Marathon and Forever the Moment felt contrived to me. There were parts I enjoyed, but as a whole the two just didn’t live up to their hype.
Superstar Mr. Gam, however, surprised and delighted me. I love its light touches of warmth and humor. There are no excessively emotional scenes and even its most touching scene (the one I alluded to earlier) is quiet and brief. Nail-biting scenes there are aplenty in the final make-or-break game (a given in this genre), but these are expertly crafted and directed. A superb music score (which never overpowers) completes this gem.
A must-watch for any Lee Beom-soo fan, you will treasure this movie and return to it over and over, just like I have. See for yourself how he smiles and tell me if it does not make you want to smile in return, so infectious is his joy.