Weeds on Fire (點五步, Steve Chan Chi-Fat, 2016)

“Even though disappointed, do not lose hope” reads a piece of graffiti in the closing moments of Steve Chan Chi-fat’s nostalgic coming-of-age drama Weeds on Fire (點五步). Though touted as a baseball movie, as incongruous as that may sound given that the sport is a niche interest in contemporary Hong Kong, Chan’s strangely hopeful if quietly melancholy tale of ‘80s Sha Tin is bookended by scenes of the present day city in the midst of the Umbrella Movement protests the story the hero wants to offer seemingly intended for an audience of dejected youngsters as confused and disappointed as he once was in order to encourage them that what’s important isn’t winning or losing but staying the course and gaining the confidence to take the first step. 

Now in his mid-40s, Lung (Lam Yiu-sing) casts his mind back to the Hong Kong of 1984 when he lived on a rundown council estate in Sha Tin and attended a high school with a less than stellar academic record. A shy and nerdy boy, he was often bullied but always had childhood friend Wai (Tony Wu Tsz-tung), physically imposing and with a confident swagger, at his back. When the city comes up with additional funding for schools to use in the promotion of sport their enterprising headmaster Lu Kwong-fai (Liu Kai-chi) hatches on the idea of starting the region’s very first local high school baseball team, recruiting both Wai and Lung in the hope of teaching them teamwork and discipline. Nevertheless, being teammates begins to place a strain on their friendship and it becomes clear that the boys are destined for different paths. Wai quits the team in a huff and leaves school, mooching round in pool bars and hanging out with triads while Lung steps up to the plate but is troubled by the loss of his friendship and the fracturing relationship between his unhappily married parents. 

Chan somewhat unsubtly ties Lung’s personal development to that of Hong Kong as he finds himself coming of age in era of anxiety. The world is literally changing around him, 1984 being as says the year that the redevelopment of Sha Tin began in earnest while it also marked the signing of the Sino-British Declaration paving the way for the transfer of power in the 1997 Handover. A young man, Lung wants to “change” himself in that he longs for the confidence to ask out a young woman he’s developed a crush on but is too shy and disappointed in himself for doing nothing when witnessing her being harassed by a drunken creep in the lift of the apartment block where they both live. Yet in other ways change frightens him and really he wants everything to stay the same believing that saying nothing will maintain the status quo only to realise that there are situations over which he has no real control. 

His headmaster and coach of the baseball team Lu admits that he set Wai and Lung against each other in order to encourage him to come out from his friend’s shadow embracing his own identity and discovering a sense of self-confidence. Yet Lung continues to struggle, a little lost unable to find clear direction in his life while everything changes around him occasionally consumed by a sense of despair as perhaps are the young protestors in believing their movement has failed. In baseball what he realises that it isn’t about winning or losing but having the confidence to step up to the plate, subtly telling the protestors to hang in there because there’s still time to turn this around. “I never said we had to win”, inspirational coach Lu reminds the boys, “but I did say never give up!”.

Loosely based on the real life story of the Shatin Martins though as the closing credit reel reveals the original team were primary school children rather than high schoolers, Chan shifts away from sporting drama towards the more familiar youth movie metaphor of two former friends heading in different directions, the good boy knuckling down while the “bad” becomes a victim of his own hotheaded arrogance even if managing to repair his fractured friendship with Lung before tragedy strikes. Filled with memories of Handover anxiety and a healthy dose of ‘80s nostalgia, the film’s incongruous jauntiness is perhaps at odds with the gravity of the tale though that is perhaps itself part of the message the older Lung has for the young. “This is the city where I grew up. It’s become increasingly unfamiliar” he laments striding through streets filled with tents occupied by student protestors, sympathising with their cause while offering them a note of melancholy hope in his own, sometimes painful, tale of finding his feet in a changing Hong Kong. 


Weeds on Fire streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Not Out (낫아웃, Lee Jung-gon, 2021)

“I just wanted to keep playing baseball” the hero of Lee Jung-gon’s Not Out (낫아웃) eventually wails on finally being confronted with the consequences of his actions. Not so much a baseball movie as a gentle character study Lee’s unexpectedly dark drama sees its singleminded hero descending to depths of sociopathic manipulation in his determination to make his sporting dreams come true but less perhaps out of pure hearted yearning than a sense of embarrassment and fragile masculinity. 

“You won, then it’s over isn’t it?” someone asks Shin Gwang-ho (Jeong Jae-Kwang), the hero of his high school baseball team having just carried them to a miraculous victory. No, he corrects them, it’s only just beginning. Approaching graduation, all Gwang-ho’s ever wanted to do is play baseball, and everyone’s always telling him how good he is at it so much so that he’s internalised a puffed-up sense of himself as a sporting prodigy. That’s one reason why when his coach (Kim Hee-chang) tells him he’s been offered a trainee position with a professional team he arrogantly turns it down, sure that he’s going to be drafted. But his decision backfires, he’s not picked while another boy is leaving him confused, somewhat humiliated, and completely lost as to what to do now. Regretting having thrown away the trainee opportunity he makes the knee-jerk decision to apply to colleges to play in the uni leagues and get another shot at being drafted by the pros, but his decision negatively impacts the life plan of another player whose request not to apply to the same uni falls on deaf ears. Gwang-ho doesn’t really get why it’s a big deal, surely he has the right to try out and let the best player win but his friend, knowing he isn’t talented as Gwang-ho, doesn’t see it that way and intensely resents his insensitivity. 

There is a peculiarly childish component to Gwang-ho’s unthinking determination as he makes a series of increasingly bad decisions in order to pursue his goal little caring who might get hurt in the process. His problem is compounded by the fact that his family is poor, resenting his friend for being wealthy enough to make uni his main plan as if he thinks he can simply do without baseball while to Gwang-ho it’s the only thing that matters. “You think you can play baseball all on your own?” his exasperated coach asks him, fed up with his tendency to alienate his teammates but himself exploiting him in asking for money from his father to improve his chances of being able to continue playing. Gwang-ho, meanwhile, also resents his dad, going so far as to try to guilt him into selling his restaurant to get him the money to go to college.

Gwang-ho continues to do whatever he wants without really thinking about the consequences which is how he ends up trading stolen/illegal homemade petrol with old middle school friend Min-chul (Lee Kyu-Sung). Min-chul and the teenage girl working with him So-hyun (Song Yi-jae) seem to be more aware of the implications of their life of crime while Gwang-ho resolutely refuses to realise that this all very likely to blow up in his face, which it eventually does and quite literally. Pushed to breaking point he hatches a plan to rob the old man running the petrol racket even though despite his obvious criminality he’s actually been quite good to this gang of troubled teens. Min-chul used to play baseball himself but gave up because of an injury, telling Gwang-ho that he thought it would hurt more than it did finally realising “you can just give up if it’s shitty” but Gwang-ho can’t let go of his baseball dreams and is prepared to do pretty much anything to prove he’s “not out” of the game. 

Earlier, the other players had lamented that for them there are no second chances. They’ve invested all their hopes in baseball without studying for the college entrance exams, if they fail to get drafted there’s no obvious way forward. For Gwang-ho who cannot rely on family money, has no connections, other skills or talents, baseball really is all he has which might be why he can’t admit the thought that it’s just not meant to be while his initial failure proves such a huge humiliation that it shatters his sense of self. Only through finally accepting responsibility for his actions, realising the way he’s treated those around him, does he begin move forward apparently getting another shot, still in the game, but perhaps humbled. 


Not Out screened as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

I Will Buy You (あなた買います, Masaki Kobayashi, 1956)

20140731_762129In I will Buy You (あなた買います, Anata Kaimasu, a provocative title if there ever was one), Kobayashi may have moved away from directly referencing the war but he’s still far from happy with the state of his nation. Taking what should be a light hearted topic of a much loved sport which is assumed to bring joy and happiness to a hard working nation, I Will Buy You exposes the veniality not only of the baseball industry but by implication the society as a whole.

Kishimoto works as a scout for a popular Tokyo baseball team. His job is to find the promising young players and charm them into accepting a contract before any of the other teams get to them. His first assignment doesn’t go well when he arrives at an ace pitcher’s home only to be told the subject in question is recovering from having lost a finger in a workplace accident. No major league career for him – Kishimoto heads home without even introducing himself. The next prospect is very exciting – a semi-well known college ball player who might be persuaded to turn pro. However, the student, Kurita, is “managed” by a benefactor, Kyuki (whose name literally means “ball spirit” in Japanese) who seems to be a difficult man to deal with. Nevertheless, Kishimoto is young, ambitious and determined to get Kurita on side by any means possible.

It’s just baseball, one might think but it’s almost as if we’re playing for souls. Everyone is lying, everyone is double crossing everybody else and everyone has their own interests at heart all the while swearing they only want the best for Kurita. Kurita has become a trophy, no one has even thought to ask him if he actually wants to keep playing baseball. He’s no no longer a person for them so much as a flag to be captured. This might actually work out quite well for Kurita himself who, it turns out, is far from the country bumpkin everyone has him pegged as. Though surrounded by carping relatives who are also all intent on exploiting his talent, the possibility of Kurita suddenly discovering the power to make his own decisions is a threat to everyone that they haven’t even considered yet.

Kyuki himself is the bad guy we’ve all been set up to be suspicious of but may actually turn out to be the most decent hustler in the picture. They say he spied for the Chinese during the war but is it a rumour you can really believe or just the jealous slurs of his various rivals? He himself says he taught Chinese girls to use the bayonet and carries an air of aloofness that makes him seem untrustworthy. He’s bankrolled Kurita’s education and taken on the position of a father to him over the last four years but how much of that is genuine feeling and how much financial investment? Kyuki is a married father with a family out of town but is sort of living with the older sister of Kurita’s girlfriend which is an awkward situation in itself. He also claims to have a serious gallstone problem which requires an operation though others claim he’s putting it on. Who is Kyuki, with his suspiciously apt name and hard nosed attitude can we trust him, or not?

I Will Buy You is a characteristically angry and cynical effort from Kobayashi and though it’s still a fairly early work carries some of his later technical prowess. Stripping the mask away from what is assumed to be a gentle pastime, the film lays bare the money hungry desperation of post-war Japan. Money ruins everything, even something as innocent as baseball. The Kurita from the end of the film is not the idealistic young student who came to Tokyo but a canny self-interested individual. Whether or not this transformation, and the accompanying transformation of Kishimoto whose eyes have been well and truly opened, is for the better or not maybe a matter of personal perspective but it’s not hard to guess where Kobayashi stands.


I Will Buy You is the second of four early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.