I have an affinity for sports bio-pics because they usually celebrate qualities such as hard work, perserverence, and sometimes sheer luck for an athlete to overcome the incredible odds facing them, and to come up on top. Naturally winning is all that matters, because nobody remembers the losers (unfortunately), and it's always inspiring to witness how others overcome their challenges which sometimes surpass that of which an individual could handle.
If an equivalent of a sports bio-pic is to be done in the Singapore context in relation to the Olympics, it could perhaps be our pioneering medalist, weightlifter Tang Howe Liang, to relate how he went quite on his own without the current support structure in place for our athletes of today, to win glory for our nation. Similarly, Liu Changchun (Li Zhaolin) goes down in China's history books as the first athlete to represent China in the 1930s 10th Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, USA.
And naturally the road to the Olympics is not paved in gold, especially when you look at the tumultuous period he belonged to in China's history, where they were on the brink of the Sino-Japanese war, and the country in turmoil with priorities other than to consider expending budget in sending an athlete overseas to compete. It's an incredible pressure and one can only imagine the immense anxiety he has with the burden to shoulder the hopes of millions of people, in epitiomizing all of them with the indomitable spirit to compete at the highest level, and to shake off the “Sick Man of Asia” tag given the Japanese invasion. Representing the hopes of a nation, especially for a pioneer, can be nerve wrecking, but for the support from this father and understanding wife, he begins on the arduous journey to get himself represented, which this movie spent a lot of time focusing on the difficulties from war to crippling bureaucracy.
Those moments were told in flashbacks, and we chart his trip to the USA from the start on sea, where he's travelling with only his coach Professor Song (Shi Liang) as they try to squeeze in some minimal training. And with inexperience comes the bickering with his coach, with one wanting to train continuously, against the coach's recommendation to cater for some adequate rest time. And as we know, sometimes lessons are learnt the hard way, which requires some eating of the humble pie to root one back to reality after a series of overconfidence.
The movie boasted very high production values, with no efforts spared in having nifty special effects recreating countless of moments, from sets to backgrounds used to capture and recreate the era and the Games back then. The narrative also took a leaf out of Forrest Gump in having juxtapose the current actors into those black and white archival footage, and did so very competently and convincingly. Director Hou Yong also filmed the sprints under very exciting terms, with slow motion (otherwise everything would be over in mere seconds) and tight angles to frame all the action, which probably required multiple takes given the multiple angles shown, and to imagine the attention to details and accuracy to have the actors all come in at the right moments as cast in historical stone.
If there is a gripe, I thought they should have filmed the all the races that he took part in, rather than not do so, with the narrative ra-ra about determination and the likes set the expectation that he's on a winning streak. Li Zhaolin was very believable as an Olympic competitor given his very chiselled features and well toned body befitting an athlete. Notable cameos include David Wu and Hu Jun as a general/headmaster. And yes, Singapore also had a contribution here with Sun Yanzi being part of the singing ensemble for the team song, along with the likes of Jackie Chan and Wang Lee Hom.
I had the chance to watch this as inflight entertainment but sleep overrode that opportunity. And I am thankful to have watched this, as it drops automatically into my recommended list of films to watch in relation to the Olympic theme this festival seems to be taking.