If there's a common theme that I noticed in this year's China Film Festival thus far, is how the story has some connection to the Beijing Olympic Games held earlier this year, either thematically, or through some passing camera shots. In this one, a makeshift football coach promises his young charges that should they win the district football tournament, they would all be eligible to travel to Beijing and participate in the Games in some capacity.
Of course this was nothing but a lie, but this lie becomes the catalyst for changing attitudes and mindsets of the villagers who have lost their sparkle, drive and confidence in confronting adversary, and are faced with the dire consequences of having to leave their land because of the lack of irrigation stemming from a fast drying river, which is their main support system.
The titular Maimaiti is a high wire walker, but because of his driving away of a female football coach assigned to the village of Shawei, he gets sent there instead in her place to assemble a team and yield results, otherwise he can forget about returning home. In exile, he thought that the task will be a piece of cake even though he has a distinct lack of knowledge of the game, because the entire village are football fanatics, and their children have individual skill and flair, thanks to their satellite televisions beaming the world's best leagues into their televisions.
But as we all know in team games, it's never always about the individual but a collective group, and this is the uphill task facing him to try and gel the team together, especially after they were severely humiliated in their opening game because of internal bickering, and each trying to be the hero. Swallowing humble pie, Maimaiti begs the return of the original coach, and together, have to figure out a way to inspire the children to greatness, to fulfill their potential, to work on all their strengths, and more importantly, to impart the values of discipline, teamwork and cooperation.
I felt it was a treat to have seen this feel good movie despite its flaws (you can start with figuring out who's playing for the Shawei village in the final game, which will drive you nuts), because it's not always that one visits the smaller towns and villages on screen, especially that of the Uygur ethnic group which I believe is predominantly Muslim (since there was mention of the celebration of Hari Raya). But what I deemed as a pity was that the film was dubbed in Chinese, otherwise we could all hear the original language it was shot in. Otherwise technically this was a film competently shot, and characterization while one dimensional, made it easier to follow given the dizzying names of all the characters.
The little boys proved to be rather skillful on the ball with some nifty tricks captured on screen during their competitive games. And being football fanatics, they each have their respective nicknames according to their idols and in the positions they play. For instance, there are the midfield maestros Zidane and Maradona, and others named after the likes of Roberto Carlos, David Beckham, Roberto Baggio, Paolo Maldini etc. And for fun's sake, even Zidane's infamous head butt got re-enacted here.
But it's not all about footballing nuggets to thrill football fans here. The strength of the script resided in how it was able to parallel this young football team with the state of the village and the shifting mindsets of the villagers. As mentioned, the team served as inspiration for the villagers to get together, and with the lessons in teamwork rubbing off, you'd find that winning the championship to get to Beijing to participate in the Gaames, which was the overriding factor in getting permission to have the team assembled, became secondary.
Then there's still the issue of that being a lie, as well as major problems in having the team's star players transferred out for monetary gains, which remains for you to find out what exactly happened when you get first opportunity to watch this. It's recommended for its charm, as well as a family-friendly story with good values to impart.