“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.
Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)