We Are Champions (下半場, Chang Jung-Chi, 2019)

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)

Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Yim Soon-rye, 2008)

forever the moment posterSports is one of society’s acceptable obsessions. Devotion to a football team, intense knowledge of baseball stats, and idolatry of athletes is not only respected, it is often required for any kind cultural fluency in the society in which one lives. Sportsmen and women, however, can become a disposable commodity. This is after all why the pay for sports stars is so high – the career is temporary. A brief moment in the spotlight can earn a top athlete a multitude of promotional contracts and role model status to hundreds of sporty kids, but when the music stops everyone loses interest. The heroes of Yim Soon-rye’s Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Woori Saengae Chwegoui Soongan) achieved their 15 seconds of fame when the Korean women’s handball team won a couple of gold medals in the ‘90s before the sport returned to relative obscurity. Despite being gold medal winners, the women are in a precarious position, left without professional team contracts and lacking the necessary qualifications and experience to find well paid work outside of the sports world.

Yim frames her story around the 2004 Olympic Games in which the Korean women’s handball team came back from a disastrous slump to reach the final only to go home with silver after a penalty shootout defeat to Denmark. Mi-sook (Moon So-ri) was part of the gold medal winning 1992 team and is now a wife and mother. Her financial circumstances, however, are strained. When the supermarket handball team she’s been playing for is disbanded, Mi-sook counts herself lucky to get a job on the shop floor. Her husband (Sung Ji-ru), formerly a top male handball player, has been conned out of all his money by an unscrupulous business partner and is currently on the run from debt collectors leaving her a virtual single parent and desperate for money.

Money is the reason she eventually decides to come back to the Korean Women’s Olympic handball team. Mi-sook’s one time rival, Hye-kyeong (Kim Jung-eun), has been parachuted in to coach the Korean Olympic hopefuls after a successful run coaching in Japan. The team is in a sorry state – filled with inexperienced youngsters, it will need serious work to even qualify for the upcoming games let alone reach the podium. Hye-kyeong decides to get some of her old medal winning team-mates back to bring some strength to the ranks even if they’re all a little past their prime. Despite her best efforts, Hye-kyeong is soon sidelined for male coach (and old flame) Ahn Pil-seung (Uhm Tae-woong) who decides to junk the “Korean method” which uses speed as a weapon against the taller European challengers, and embark on a “science-based” European training regimen.

Yim deliberately moves away from the classic sports movie formula, eschewing the training montage and including only one lengthy match at the film’s climax. Forever the Moment prefers to concentrate on the internal struggles of its scrappy, underdog team the best hopes of which are middle-aged women with children whom society often writes off. Hye-kyeong is an earnest, driven woman who’s made a successful life for herself as a sports professional after her court life has come to a natural end, but she still loses out because she got divorced – the bigwigs are nervous about the proposition of a “divorced” woman occupying a “public” position, something that would hardly come up if she were a man. Made “acting coach”, Hye-kyeong is given hardly any time at all to prove herself before the experiment of “allowing” a woman to coach women is ruled unsuccessful and a man with little experience given full budgetary backing to replace her.

Hye-kyeong’s battles with Ahn may eventually take on the expected romantic dimension but it’s the relationships between the other players which become the film’s spine. Mi-sook has always made a point of distancing herself from handball, regarding it simply as a paycheck rather than a vocation – something which seems all the more relevant thanks to her ongoing troubles with her absent husband who is rapidly sinking into a breakdown over his humiliation and inability to support his wife and child. Struggling through adversity and working hard to achieve a physical goal, the teammates discover new strengths, growing as people and as athletes in their quest to be ready for the all important Athens games.

Forever the Moment is another in the long line of Korean films which celebrate the achievements Koreans can make when they come together and work hard to achieve their goal. As in real life, the Korean Women’s Olympic Handball Team are robbed of their final victory by circumstance and accident, but coming second becomes a victory in itself because of everything it took to get there. Less a sports movie than a subversive comment on the way women are often cast aside or underestimated, Forever the Moment is a tribute to the power of hard work and team spirit which becomes its own reward even when one falls short of the goal.


Original 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.