The Batter’s Eye: Lee Jang-ho’s Baseball Team

Baseball is considered an American sport, but it’s not exclusively one. When putting together my list of baseball movies, I wanted to make sure I did capture an international perspective on the game.

But maybe Lee Jang-ho’s Baseball Team (1986, directed by Lee Jang-ho) wasn’t the best place to start.

Based on Lee Hyun-se’s comic, Alien Baseball Team, the movie follows poor but talented Hye-sung (Ahn Sung-ki). After an injury, he is recruited by the mysterious Sohn Byung-ho (despite attempts, I can’t match the actor’s name to this character) for his team of misfit baseball players. All the players have something that made other teams reject them — being short, too heavy, only having one arm, being of mixed race — but after some rather sadistic training, they become unstoppable.

Except that Hye-sung is in love with his childhood friend Eom-ji (Lee Bo-hee) who is in a relationship with his rival, Ma Dong-tak (Choi Jae-sung) because of course there needs to be a love triangle.

I know Lee is a respected director in South Korea, and I admit to being unfamiliar with his work. I do think differing cultural norms and the passage of time meant some of this didn’t quite land with me. But I’ve seen enough movies to feel confident in saying this just isn’t very good.

Choices made throughout the movie feel nonsensical and it tends to jump all over the place. The movie is edited in such a way that scenes barely connect to each other. Characters are forgotten about for long stretches and are thinly drawn anyway. Eom-ji mostly just shows up to look longing and sad (she has no agency in anything that’s happening to her). Hye-sung is easy to root for, but he has little more personality than “baseball” and “in love with Eom-ji.”

Once I settled into the surrealness of this movie — whether it was intentional or not — I enjoyed it a bit more. As much as I’m into the idea of these underestimated players forming a great team — because part of what I like about baseball is how welcoming it is — the teams’ training feels less about making them great and just breaking them down with cruelty. I think some of that was supposed to be funny but mostly it just felt mean in a misplaced way.

Ha Guk-sang, a dark-skinned player with a Black father, could have been an interesting commentary about racism in South Korea and I think he was meant as such. However, the actor playing him is in blackface and that’s definitely a specific choice that made much of this incredibly uncomfortable to watch.

The baseball action is OK for the most part. It does rely on a lot of editing tricks that make the games not quite feel real. The movie doesn’t really show the team being great but just tells the audience it is. I know baseball was relatively new in South Korea when this movie came out (professional ball only started in 1982) but the sports scenes feel pretty underdeveloped. It’s too bad this movie couldn’t even deliver there.

I have more non-U.S. movies on my list and I assume they’ll all be better than this one.