What is the best way to “win”, team work and camaraderie or authoritarian austerity? Two brothers find themselves on different paths in Chang Jung-Chi’s high school basketball drama We Are Champions (下半場, Xiàbàn Cháng), but in true manly fashion eventually end up repairing their fracturing familial relationships through sporting competition as a healthier substitute for physical violence (though that too is not entirely absent). Who wins and who loses might not be as important as it first seems, but then again perhaps there is more than one way to “win”.
Close in age, big brother Hsiu-yu (Fandy Fan Shao Hsun) and little brother Tung-hao (Berant Zhu Ting-Dian) live with an aunt and uncle in the backroom behind their seamstressing factory and spend most of their free time playing basketball out in the street with other youngsters. The boys’ mother passed away when they were small and times being what they are, their dad has had to travel to find work and is not able to check in on them very often. The reason the guys play basketball so much is that they hate living with their permanently angry uncle and want to move out, putting the money they make through street games and part time jobs into an escape fund.
Things begin to change for them when they’re spotted by a basketball coach from a local high school who gives them a few tips and offers them a shot at joining the team. Tung-hao is keen, but Hsiu-yu has given up on his dreams of basketball glory because of a hearing injury that saw him mercilessly bullied on the middle school courts. Tung-hao ends up getting scouted by an elite school, Yuying, but the authoritarian coach flatly tells him that there’s no space for Hsiu-yu because he doesn’t allow disabled people on his team. Tung-hao is conflicted, but ends up joining after fighting with his uncle and storming out of the house. He’s sorry for his brother, but all he wants to do is play basketball so he’s taking his chance. Hsiu-yu is happy for him and wishes him well, eventually taking the sympathetic coach who spotted them at the outdoor court up on his offer to play for decidedly small but scrappy high school team Kuang Cheng.
Kuang Cheng isn’t perfect, Hsiu-yu still gets bullied because of his hearing aid at least to begin with, but unlike Yuying they run on a principle of solidarity. The coach is a supportive, paternal presence that Hsiu-yu finds particularly useful in the continuing absence of his father and motivates his players through trying to give them the confidence to be all they can be. Over at Yuying, meanwhile, they all wear identical black uniforms, have buzz cuts, and spend all their time drilling with military discipline. The coach has no time for the personal lives of his players, abruptly kicking one guy off the team simply because he was late to practice. Yuying is, to put it bluntly, a bedrock of ruthless authoritarian elitism. They think they’re entitled to win because they’re the best, and they won’t hear any arguments to the contrary.
These ideological differences continue to place a strain on the brothers’ relationship with Tung-hao remaining conflicted about his decision to leave his brother behind and doubling down on the manly militarism of his coach’s philosophy to make it seem worthwhile. Having not seen him in a long while, Hsiu-yu calls out to his brother across the basketball court but Tung-hao ignores him, eventually answering only after Hsiu-yu returns to let him know that he’s just had a call about a relative being seriously injured and taken to hospital. Tung-hao tells him he’s not interested in family drama because he’s here to practice with his new buddies before crossing the line back towards the other side.
Despite all of that, however, good brother Hsiu-yu never gives up on family feeling and continues to support Tung-hao in his heart even while they’re rivals on the court. Tung-hao is increasingly conflicted by his coach’s determination to destroy his brother, even using his hearing problems against him, but is eventually healed by Hsiu-yu’s forgiveness even as he prepares to shatter all his dreams. Sometimes you can “win” by being the better man, or by accepting someone’s forgiveness, or just doing your best, and other times you can throw a ball through a hoop all on your own. Victories come in all shapes and sizes, but true champions are the ones who know how to lose with grace and win with magnanimity.
Originally scheduled as the centrepiece of the suspended Season 10, We Are Champions streams for free in the US on June 12 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Mini-Focus: Taiwan Cinema Online. Viewers in Italy will also be able to catch it streaming as part of this year’s online Udine Far East Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)