Zero to Hero (媽媽的神奇小子 , Jimmy Wan Chi-Man, 2021)

“No one treats you like an ordinary person, so become an extraordinary one” the heroic mother at the centre of Wan Chi-Man’s Zero to Hero (媽媽的神奇小子) tells her young son as he struggles to find a place for himself as a disabled person in an unaccommodating society. Inspired by the real life story of multi-medal winning Paralympian So Wa Wai (Leung Chung-hang), Wan’s inspirational tale is as much about maternal determination as it is about overcoming preconceived limits but also makes a series of subtle points about how the contemporary society treats disability. 

Wan opens in Guangzhou in 1981 as Wai’s mother Mrs. So (Sandra Ng) frantically rushes him to hospital only to be told that he has jaundice which has resulted in cerebral palsy meaning that he will likely never be able to walk or feed himself. The doctor double checks if the family would like to proceed with treatment given this information to which they emphatically reply they would. A few years later, the family has migrated to Hong Kong and Mrs. So is forced to take Wai with her to her job in a laundry, eventually finding herself at her wits end after his hearing aid goes missing placing her son on the shoot and shouting at him to walk only to shut the belt down just before he reaches the edge. At this point, Wai manages to pull himself onto his feet, proving the doctors wrong and teaching himself to walk unassisted. Witnessing an older Wai run away from neighbourhood bullies gives Mrs. So an idea and she soon tries to enrol him in a club for athletes with physical disabilities only to be turned away because of his age but his decision to join in anyway gets him noticed by former Paralympian relay runner Coach Fong (Louis Cheung Kai-chung) who decides to take him on and train him up. 

In contrast to other sporting biopics, Wai’s path to Olympic success is more or less drama free even as he strives to improve his athletic abilities and overcome the mild resentment among some of his teammates in needing to change their style and position in order to accommodate him. Wan does however hint at the difficulties of living as a disabled person in late 20th century Hong Kong, Fong explaining to Mrs So that the Paralympics aren’t aired on Hong Kong TV and disabled athletes earn only 10% of that earned by the able-bodied. Wai does receive a small subsidy, but the Sos are otherwise forced to scrimp and save so that Wai can continue running, a situation that becomes impossible after his father is injured in an accident and left unable to work. 

It’s also clear that Mrs. So’s all encompassing love for her son causes occasional tension in the family in leaving her younger, able-bodied son understandably feeling neglected while everyone fixates on Wai’s sporting success. Wai’s brother is perfectly aware that he was born in part as a safety net for Wai so that someone would be around to look after him once the Sos have passed away and cannot at times help resenting him. Yet the family unit remains generally united until the older Wai’s prideful resentment of what he sees as his mother’s micro-managing begins to undermine their relationship. “I just want to run” Wai explains, fed up with the series of commercial opportunities his mother has agreed to on his behalf in an attempt to keep him financially secure in the future. When a director for an advert tells him he’s speaking “too well” and asks him to sound more disabled Wai has had enough, leading to a confrontation that ends both in romantic heartbreak and a falling out between mother and son. 

“Catching up is the story of my life” Wai reminds Fong, emphasising the film’s inspirational message that sometimes people have further to go but get there in the end while also signalling the various ways lack of accommodation for his disabilities has continued to hold him back outside of his sporting success. A heartwarming tale of an incredible mother-son bond, Zero to Hero insists that the mutual determination to succeed turned them both into heroes allowing Wai to achieve his full potential as a Paralympian bringing gold and glory back home in defiance of those who told him he’d never be anything. 


Zero to Hero screens Aug. 21 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Hand Rolled Cigarette (手捲煙, Chan Kin-long, 2020)

A former serviceman turned triad middleman bonds with a similarly oppressed South Asian petty criminal in Chan Kin-long’s noirish crime drama Hand Rolled Cigarette (手捲煙). An unexpected awards contender, the first directorial effort from actor Chan aligns its disparate heroes as two men in a sense betrayed by the world in which they live, one longing for a way out and the other too convinced he no longer deserves one to continue looking. 

“Let’s start over” Chiu (Gordon Lam Ka-tung) philosophically muses over a cigarette contemplating the coming handover. As a brief title card explains, when the British Army pulled out of Hong Kong, it hung its local recruits out to dry, disbanding their units and leaving them entirely without support. 25 years later, Chiu has become a dejected triad middleman, as we first meet him setting up a dubious deal for smuggled turtles between Taiwanese mobster Pickle (To Yin-gor) and local top dog Boss Tai (Ben Yuen). On his way back to his flat in Chungking Mansions, Chiu literally runs into a South Asian man apparently in the middle of a drug deal. Kapil (Bitto Singh Hartihan) dreams of bigger prizes, listening to the stock market report on the morning news and musing about robbing a bank. His cousin Mani (Bipin Karma), more conflicted in their criminal activities, cautions him against it reminding him that they already face discrimination and don’t need to add to their precarious position by giving their ethnicity a bad name. “If we have money people can’t look down on us” Kapil counters, seemingly desperate to escape his difficult circumstances by any means possible which eventually leads him to make the incredibly bad decision to cheat local triads out of their drug supply. Leaving Mani and his schoolboy brother Mansu (Anees) alone to carry the can (literally), Kapil takes off while Mani finds himself crawling into Chiu’s flat for refuge when chased by Boss Tai’s chief goon Chook (Michael Ning). Unwilling at first, Chiu agrees to let Mani stay, for a price, only to find himself falling ever deeper into a grim nexus of underworld drama. 

Chiu’s plight as a former British serviceman makes him in a sense an exile in his own land, a displaced soul free floating without clear direction unable to move on from the colonial past. We later learn that he is in a sense attempting to atone for a karmic debt relating to the death of a friend during the Asian financial crisis, also beginning in 1997, of which he was a double victim. Most of his old army buddies have moved on and found new ways of living, some of them rejecting him for his role in their friend’s death and tendency to get himself into trouble while Chiu can only descend further into nihilistic self-loathing in his self-destructive triad-adjacent lifestyle. 

Mani, by contrast, did not approve of his cousin’s criminality, particularly resenting him for using Mansu’s schoolbag as a means of shifting drugs. He dreams of a better life but sees few other options for himself, hoping at least to send Mansu to university and ensure he doesn’t share the same fate. Chiu continues to refer to him solely by a racial slur, but simultaneously intervenes in the marketplace when Chook and his guys hassle another South Asian guy insisting that they’re all locals and therefore all his “homies”, despite himself warming to the young man and even going so far as to sort out child care for Mansu otherwise left on his own. “Harmony brings wealth” Boss Tai ironically exclaims, but harmony is it seems hard to come by, Chiu’s sometime Mainland girlfriend expressing a desire to return because the city is not as she assumed it would be while little Mansu is constantly getting in fights because the other kids won’t play with him. 

“There’s always a way out. I’ll start over” Chiu again tells Mani, though he seems unconvinced. Clearing his debts karmic and otherwise, Chiu discovers only more emptiness and futility while perhaps redeeming himself in rebelling against the world of infinite corruption that proved so difficult to escape. A moody social drama with noir flourishes, Chan’s fatalistic crime story is one of national betrayals culminating in a highly stylised, unusually brutal action finale partially set in the green-tinted hellscape of a gangster’s illegal operating theatre. Men like Chiu, it seems, may not be able to survive in the new Hong Kong but then perhaps few can. 


Hand Rolled Cigarette streams in Europe until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)