Champions – 奪標
Director: Tsui Siu-Ming (徐小明)
Cast: Dicky Cheung (張衛健), Priscilla Wong (黄翠如), Yu Rong-Guang (于榮光), Xie Mao (謝苗)
You rock hard. I mean it. If you were a woman, I would kiss you all over your body and make sweet love to you on a bed of fragrant rose petals. If you were a man, you would be my best buddy, somebody I would gladly go drinking with and commit harmless juvenile crimes to reinforce our blossoming bromance. Words cannot adequately explain how sweetly awesome you are. Damn, I love you.
Well, that’s what Tsui would say to China if he could. Now I’ll be the first to say that China is awesome in some respects, but Tsui’s film Champions is a little too heavy handed. It’s not unlike watching Michael Bay’s epic disaster of a film Pearl Harbor (or pretty much anything else he’s done) and walking away from it with a bloated sense of false patriotism. Not to say that patriotism and feelings of nationalism are inherently evil, but all too often they are presented with the subtlety of a jackhammer and packaged in an overall poorly conceived film. This is the problem with Champions. Well meaning and exuberant, but wholly uneven from start to finish.
The story revolves around a group of young athletes and their attempts to raise money to attend the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Professional Ekin Cheng lookalike Dicky Cheung is Cheung Fong, member of the local martial arts organization who is hopelessly in love with track sensation Ngan Ling (Priscilla Wong). Together, and with the help of Fong’s master Cheung Chi-Kong (Yu Rong-Guang) and fellow martial artist Kwan Shue-Po (Xie Mao), they procure a large sum of money, raise the peoples’ awareness of Chinese athletes, bring peace to warring martial arts sects, and defeat evil capitalists. Seriously. In this respect, Champions recalls some of the glory days of Hong Kong cinema and its trademark excesses in terms of a bombastic visual style, sudden thematic shifts, and inventive fight choreography involving both wire work as well as straight forward hand-to-hand. Here’s a short clip to give you an idea of what to expect action wise.
As you can see, much of the action involves distinct styles of martial arts, from mantis fist to eagle claw and others. Supervised personally by Tsui, the action scenes are in good hands, and they are helped by veteran martial arts stars like Yu Rong-Guang. It’s a shame the man never truly became a leading star, but his venerable performances in films like Iron Monkey (少年黃飛鴻之鐵馬騮) and The East is Red (part three in the Swordsman trilogy, 東方不敗之風雲再起) have made him a popular icon of classic Hong Kong cinema. And although he’s hampered by a heavy anded script here, he hasn’t lost his charm.
Now about that script. It should perhaps be said that Tsui deserves some credit for getting right to the point. This is a film made to promote Chinese athletics and stir feelings of national pride in the same year China played host to the 2008 Olympic Games. After the film and before the end credits even begin, we are treated to a montage of some Olympic highlights from 2008 with text detailing China’s accomplishments in the games. Have a look at this clip to get a sense of the overall feeling Tsui is going for.
Yes, those were the Olympic rings. Yes, the script even has an inside joke referencing the 2008 Olympics. And yes, if you thought they were about to break into song like the cast of Fame, you are not alone. The problem, therefore, lies in the bluntness of Tsui’s intention. It is never revealed why this group of young go-getters cares about international exposure in the sports world. They just do, as if it’s second nature. As the Olympics themselves were used last year, athletic dominance in the film is seen as a gateway victory which will eventually lead to dominant roles in various global affairs. The lack of development in this area gives the film its obvious propagandist edge and also serves to undermine the characters because, after all, they exist in the film sans expositional development. Adding to the film’s none-so-subtle overarching theme is the central villain, a weasel of a man out to inherit his rich uncle’s fortune by kidnapping his son. His uncle is a central figure as he plans to help the athletes raise money to attend the games. While the protagonists are continuously preaching team work and sameness, the villain exists for personal gain. You guessed it. It’s the age old battle of Communism versus Capitalism. Take that, Rocky IV!
But in the end, all is not lost. If Champions contains another positive attribute aside from its action choreography, it is definitely its promotion of the spirit of competition. It seems kind of ironic given proof of Chinese authorities’ falsification of the age of their female gymnasts, but the film goes out of its way to advocate fair competition. And let’s face it, China is not the sole offender. This message is globally relevant in the modern sports world in general. With recent news of A-Rod (I guess the A stands for Ass) testing positive for performance enhancing drugs from 2001-2003 and Barry Bonds having been indicted for the same offense, as well as a veritable slew of athletes who don’t feel as if they need to play fair (Marion Jones and Mark McGwire, I’m looking at you two), the power of athletes to have a positive influence on those who marvel at their abilities is in danger of dying out completely. Perhaps Tsui did not intend to connect the spirit of fairness with government coverups and steroid use, but that’s how me and my Western gaze are going to interpret it.
Whether or not you will enjoy this film depends entirely on how much patriotism you can tolerate. Many will definitely find it a turn off. But perhaps for most, the excellent and numerous martial arts scenes alone will suffice. To those I say if you can stomach hearing the word “Olympics” more times in the film than during the actual games last summer as well as the never-say-die attitude of the protagonists, then you’re good to go.