Recently filmmaker Philip Riccobono stopped to answer some questions about his upcoming documentary on baseball in Korea.
What brought you to Korea to film your documentary ‘Fighting’: Cheering in Korea?
I knew South Korea as solid-baseball country and after living in Japan a decade ago, I thought Korea probably had some pretty intense fans. I felt North American fans needed to feel this intensity and put them inside Korean stadiums to see and hear this brand of cheering, completely foreign to them.
What has been the most surprising thing you have seen so far from the Korean baseball fans?
I remember my first game in Japan 10 years ago. The fans really impressed me: drums, horns, every pitch felt like a big moment, but after seeing KBO fans, I got blown away: synchronized cheers and songs; beautiful and talented cheerleaders. If someone blindfolded you and dropped you in any given KBO stadium, you may think that the home-team needs a run to tie it in the bottom of the ninth. Where in actuality, they might be in the first inning, scoreless or down by 10 in the 8th. It doesn’t matter the fan intensity remains consistent throughout the game and as some North American fans my grow tired of it, Koreans don’t. Koreans as you know, have this mantra of “Fighting”- sort of motivational statement. It translates into the stands. After seeing them say it so much, I had to incorporate it into the title of the documentary. So I named it “Fighting”: Cheering in Korea
Will you only film during baseball games or are you going to add in fans of other sports here like soccer?
Just sticking to baseball, but if you didn’t see the field at all in the documentary, you might think of them as soccer fans, based on their relentless cheering and passion- something that lacks in North American baseball. I also shoot some super fans in their everyday lives. You’ll meet Harry Dean, “A fan of the people” and see him carving turkey on Thanksgiving for a group of fellow Doosan Bears fans he invited into his home. And guys like Ted Smith, honorary cheerleader for Nexen Heroes. He takes his act out to the bars after games, getting the fans pumped by leading cheers and dancing. I haven’t seen anything like this from MLB fans; the closest thing you might compare these types of fans to is to college sports in America.
It seems the reaction has been great from the foreigners in Korea, but how has the reception been from the Korean side of things?
Yes, from fans to players, foreigners have embraced this project, but so have many Koreans. Teams have not cooperated for the most part, but I hope they’ll come through. Many of my contacts have come by way of a producer on the project, Dan Kurtz, of mykbo.net. Danny has facilitated a lot. Every foreign player I have approached has agreed and one has even stuck his neck out on the line, shooing away team officials when they tried to prevent me from shooting an interview. Korean fans who I spoke seem really excited to share their brand of cheering with the world and a lot feel surprised and flattered by the interest from an American.
How would you compare fans here in Korea to fans in other countries you have been to?
The only country you might compare Korean fans to is Japan and on the richter scale I give Japan a 6, but Koreans go off the charts with a 12. North American fans are more of baseball purists who like to take in the game in a more relaxed style, but in Korea most fans come to party and dance. One MLB scout said it best: “Welcome to the biggest outdoor, daytime disco!”
Have you noticed differences in the fans of the teams you have seen? If so, does one team stand out as a little bit louder or crazier?
Sure, Lotte Giants fans for sure. They stand out aesthetically by blowing orange plastic bags and tying them around their heads in the later innings of each game. Fans and players have given me several different reasons for this. I recently went to the Asia Series which Lotte hosted at Sajik Stadium. When the LotteGiants faced the Yomiyuri Giants of Japan, the hometown fans got a little territorial with the opposing fans for reasons that I can produce a whole other documentary on. In any event, I captured some interesting tension between the two-sides.
What has been the biggest challenge in filming the documentary?
Lining up players to chat with. After several attempts, Park Chan ho got back to me and agreed but I didn’t pick up the call and when I called back he left the facility. I still hope to land him as he know how much Korean fans compare to North American and Japan’s fans. He did the opposite of most Korean players by starting in North America and them coming here. I wonder how much an adjustment it was for him. Park Chan ho are you out there? (laughing). Also time and logistics always create a challenge, but I feel fortunate to have a pretty good schedule as a university professor, and the KTX helps with getting me around the country. I do most of the shooting on my own and it ties me up sometimes with getting other shots and reactions but you do your best.
Any future plans for more documentaries in either Korea or elsewhere?
The more I learn about the Japan-Korea baseball rivalry, clearly influenced by history, the more I want to do something with this.
When can everyone expect to see the finished product?
Production will probably wrap this upcoming spring and hope to release the project in film festivals by the end of next year. People still have time to drop me a line if they have something interesting to add. By all means, go ahead and email me: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the project’s Facebook page and Twitter works too.
I’d like to thank Philip for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us. Visit the film’s Facebook page to see some behind the scenes photos and keep up to date with its progress. I know I’ll be looking forward to seeing the film when it is finished.
Eric Bynum is Managing Editor here at BaseballdeWorld. He spent three years as an ESL teacher in South Korea, and is now working on his master's degree in history with a focus on baseball and WWII. He has played and/or written about baseball for the past 30 years and is an avid Atlanta Braves fan.