Sang-il LeebaseballJapaneseHidekazu Mashima
Also known as: Blue Chong
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Sang-il Lee
Country: Japan
Keywords: baseball
Language: Japanese, Korean
Actor: Hidekazu Mashima, Takashi Yamamoto, Naohiro Ariyama, Shiho Takemoto
Format: 54 minutes
Website category: Japanese
Review date: 23 November 2011
That was pretty good. It's a short-ish film about the experience of being Korean and a high school student in Japan, with prejudice on both sides and some idiots who need slapping.
It's largely autobiographical, of course. The writer-director is of Korean origin and resident in Japan, although he's also a very successful director and doing very well for himself. A lot of that is down to this film, which was his graduation piece from the Japan Academy of Moving Images. It won him the Grand Prize and a scholarship at the prestigious PIA Film Festival, where many of today's leading filmmakers made their debuts. He followed it up with Borderline, another film about Japan's ethnic Korean community, and he's been working steadily ever since. (He usually writes his own movies, but he'll do other people's screenplays too, e.g. his Ryu Murakami adaptation, 69.)
Firstly, the title. There are various words in Japanese for Korean people. "Kankoku-jin" is the standard term, but "zainichi" specifically means Korean people living in Japan and "chong" is derogatory. (It originally just meant "idiot", but it's also a unit of Korean currency, worth a hundredth of a won.) "Chonkazu" could be translated as "Korean bastard", for instance.
The story's not just a slice-of-life, although that's how it generally comes across. There are two story threads. The first involves Korean girls dating Japanese boys. This draws a lot of hostility from their fellow Koreans, be it from the girls' parents, siblings or classmates. Frankly, I thought these were idiots. Of course as a Westerner who knows nothing of the situation I have no right to comment... but even so, you people, get a life. In fairness though Sang-il Lee is fully aware of the situation and is putting it all into his film, so for instance you'll have the mother of our hero (Hidekazu Mashima) bitching about her daughter's Japanese boyfriend and promising to disown Mashima if he marries a Japanese girl. What's hysterical about this scene though is that she's saying all this in Japanese. I nearly died. They're paying through the nose to send their children to a Korean school, but they're not even speaking the language at home. (Maybe that's just in the movie, for the sake of Japanese audiences?)
The classmates take it even further, though. That was kind of nasty. However Mashima finds himself being challenged on the issue rather more than he'd been expecting, with both his sister and a gorgeous classmate having a non-Korean boyfriend.
The other story thread involves a baseball game. Both Korea and Japan take baseball seriously, so it's a big deal when one day Mashima and his best friend learn that their school's been picked as the first zainichi school to be invited to play in the Japanese school baseball federation. They're both on the team. Suddenly no one can talk about anything else. Unfortunately there's also the problem of winning. That's a high quality league. One small school, no matter how motivated, is going to struggle to find enough players of the required calibre. Everyone's high as a kite about this... until they play a friendly in preparation for the official game and get pulverised 27-0. This is, to put it mildly, a downer.
So that's the storyline. This is strong material, easily offering enough meat for 54 minutes, but at the same time the movie's focused just as much on Mashima's day-to-day life. We meet the Japanese toughs who make racist comments and try to beat them up. (This is funny because Mashima and his friend are violent.) We hear them talk about how they're called Korean here in Japan, but get called Japanese when they go home to Korea. We even meet co-workers at their part-time jobs who are under the impression that our heroes are Japanese, referring to them by the Japanese names they've been pretending to have. It's easier that way. "They don't hire Koreans."
Also, refreshingly, Mashima is a layabout. He hits people, he looks up girls' skirts and he finds imaginative things to do in class when he's meant to be listening to the teacher. He'll even practise baseball indoors, which is so stupid that it's surely taken from life as you'd otherwise be hard-pushed to dream it up. This film has a deadpan tone and isn't a comedy, but it has a good-sized sense of humour.
Incidentally as far as I can see, the main actors in this film have Japanese names. This may or may not mean they're really Japanese and just playing Koreans, but I'm also not sure it matters. That's presumably Sang-il Lee's decision, after all. Hidekazu Mashima managed to use this as a springboard to a busy acting career, incidentally.
To quote the director himself:
"How did you feel when your first film Blue Chong got so much praise and was shown quite widely overseas?"
"I never expected it and certainly never intended it. But I learned that there are things that all people share. I saw Japan as a foreigner, so since the point of view of the film was already that of a foreigner, maybe the step from Japan to Europe or North America wasn't that big."
I'd never heard of it until I stumbled on it recently, though, so don't go assuming that it's the new Battle Royale or anything. I liked it quite a lot. It works very well at its length. It feels honest, eye-opening and entertaining. It made me laugh and it made me think about an easily overlooked aspect of Japan that nonetheless will have resonances for minorities everywhere. Slight, but good.