|Hong Kong is a city with few baseball diamonds and little awareness for the sport, and yet it possesses its own official team. The Hong Kong Baseball Team competes across Asia, vying with various second-tier countries for recognition, inclusion in the first tier (i.e., Taiwan, Japan, Korea), and a shot at Olympic Gold. The general populace is not aware of these players or their dedication, so City Without Baseball earns immediate cred because it explores this worthy, little-known topic. However, if you factor in all the available information - including the postmodern themes, decided lack of baseball, copious full-frontal nudity, glossing over of key ideas, and most especially the eyebrow-raising participation of the actual Hong Kong Baseball Team in the lead roles - then City Without Baseball could qualify as this year's most bizarre motion picture.
Directed by Lawrence Lau and newcomer Scud, City Without Baseball is pretty much a movie without baseball. While it does possess a baseball background, the competitive tension of the sport is absent. The players attend practice and travel to an international competition, but little drama is created by the actual drive towards victory. There are montages and some spoken drama discussing the success or failure of the team, but pulse-pounding diamond action? Nowhere to be found. Instead, we get an abundance of personal reflection, as the players weigh in on their hopes and dreams, plus their opinions on locker room drama, existential crises, and relationship issues. The drama takes place in and around baseball activities, but there's nothing overt to connect each player's trials to the team's success. In that way, City Without Baseball is completely unlike a typical sports movie.
Scud and Lawrence Lau seem to be aiming for a postmodern youth drama, and the glimpse they offer of young Hong Kong lives is indeed a rare and intriguing one. The drama primarily concentrates on three individuals, the newly-transplanted Taiwanese coach Tai (John Tai); the exceptional all-around talent and team alpha dog Chung (Leung Yu-Chung); and the up-and-coming Ron (Ron Heung), who's talented but insecure about his position on the team and perhaps much more. In the "perhaps much more" department, Ron has mucho relationship issues, finding his girlfriend cheating on him before quickly moving on to college student Mei Zhi (Gia Lin). However, upon meeting Chung, Mei Zhi gets the wandering eye - a fact that doesn't escape Ron. Multiplying the complications, Ron has his own unrequited feelings - and they're towards Chung, too. Ron and Chung are teammates, friends, and even rivals. Will same-sex romance throw an even bigger wrench into their locker room relationship?
Of course it will, and that confused sexuality subplot is probably the biggest thematic hook of the existential morass that is City Without Baseball. Unfortunately, it's only one potent plot among the many attempted by directors Scud and Lawrence Lau. City Without Baseball is cut from that same wannabe substantial cloth as many of the art-toned Hong Kong dramas released since the mid-nineties. Sexuality, urban alienation, serendipity, suppressed emotions - all these themes and more show up, and City Without Baseball crams them all into an interesting, but inconclusive mixture. The coach finds romance with a waitress, and the two have sex before their storyline is forgotten. Monie Tung makes an appearance as a suicidal girl who gets involved with Chung via a chance meeting and a lost mobile phone, and the device is more cloying than it is actually effective. Also cloying is the film's penchant for announcing background music as performed by now-dead artists, a helpful but rather pretentious detail that serves no truly necessary purpose. There's lots to chew on in City Without Baseball, but the film doesn't coalesce into a greater whole, never becoming more than a movie that supposes depth based on its patchwork parts.
What's interesting is the setting and background. City Without Baseball makes good use of its Hong Kong setting and its sports details, as all the iconography - camaraderie, competition, homoeroticism - does provide an intriguing setting for an exploration into suppressed sexuality and the search for one's identity. As a would-be indie picture and potential entry into international queer-friendly film fests, City Without Baseball is a surprising and even noble effort. A person walking into the film with only the knowledge that it's a Hong Kong indie picture possessing queer themes may be satisfied with what it provides. Those looking for a telling portrait of guys playing a game that nobody watches (Hong Kong doesn't turn out to cheer this team) will not be too fulfilled, however, as that potent theme is only marginally explored. The players' determination in the face of little acclaim is trumpeted in the English marketing copy as a defining theme, but that pronouncement seems like exactly that: marketing copy. Still, there's an edgy and even entertaining edge to Scud's script and direction, and the film is shot and paced well enough to sustain interest. Furthermore, the leading actors are handsome if not charismatic, and actually possess decent presence considering their non-professional, amateur sports background.
However, that last detail is also the film's nagging question mark, and a reason that it will likely be viewed as a curiosity rather than a celebrated accomplishment. City Without Baseball takes pride in announcing that it features the actual Hong Kong Baseball Team playing characters with their real names, and even goes so far as to say that it's based on their actual experiences. If one factors in all the relationship issues, homoerotic longing and existential brouhaha, then the film and its actors are surprisingly brave and candid. But the filmmakers (and also actors, assuming they had full consent over their roles) may have assumed too much, as the film's content veers dangerously close to self-indulgent exhibitionism. Considering that this may be the first glimpse of the Hong Kong Baseball Team to both local and international audiences, is this really how the filmmakers and baseball players wish to present themselves? By taking a dramatized local issue and turning it into an existential indie film, the filmmakers seem to be missing the film's most interesting and probably accessible points. And what about the players? Is a sexuality-challenging expose on their locker room habits really what they had in mind when they signed up for a film based on their experiences?
Without the full picture (i.e., candid testimonial from the filmmakers and actors), it's really hard to say. Those who check this film out had better do their research first to make sure it suits them, because the film's baseball hook is subverted, both by lack of actual sports and the prevailing themes. Judging by their participation, the baseball players are brave and forthright young men who don't mind presenting their locker room as a place where young men find their sexualities swayed. However, given Hong Kong's conservative values, the film's open look at what happens on their baseball team is likely not what audiences want to see, and indeed it's more believable that City Without Baseball will cause private outrage rather than interest (however, given the film's box office take, complete disinterest is a possibility too). This is a city and populace that went insane from sex photos of twenty-something idols - do the Hong Kong people really want to see their representative athletes in full-frontal nude scenes, and sharing their personal experiences about sex and latent homosexuality?
I'm guessing "no", but I cannot speak for the majority - nor probably even a minority. As a film intended for public consumption, City Without Baseball is so polarizing that it doesn't seem to fit any audience. As such, it's really hard to figure out who the film is for. Foreign art film aficionados may enjoy its existential themes and exploration of alternative lifestyles. Fans of Yaoi manga and Boys' Love movies could enjoy the romantic overtones between the cut, handsome and naked young men. Willing followers of auteur theory could delight at reading Scud's personal connection to the film (while Laurence Lau is billed as co-director, Scud was the film's driving creative force). Fans of self-indulgent postmodern filmmaking could find this a diverting and noble affair. Sports fans? Uh...they'll have to pass, as the film has little sports, and what does exist is so cursory that it's wholly unsatisfying. City Without Baseball isn't a failure, but it's more of an attempt than an actual success, and its intended audience is such a mystery that one can only assume that the filmmakers made the film simply for themselves. There's value here, but City Without Baseball ultimately feels like a personal vanity project from a filmmaker who had too much to say, and chose a curious subject with which to do it. (Kozo 2008)