For today’s selection I’m once again taking sip from the well of East Asian cinema, unlike last time, today I’m left with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Today’s movie is Champions, released in China in 2008 as part of the hype surrounding the Beijing games. (Although Amazon and others list its 2011 US release date instead.) Champions is, (I presume, very loosely,) based on the story of the 1936 Chinese Olympic team. The ’36 games in Berlin were the first time China had sent more than a single athlete to an Olympic games and the film informs us, in addition to sending a complete Olympic team, China is also sending a group of martial artists to perform an exhibition as part of the closing ceremonies. The film focuses on the young martial artists competing to be part of this exhibition, as well as on a couple of the team’s leading female sprinters who become involved with the main characters.
The film is basically a kung-fu movie, with a giant scoop of Olympic-flavored Chinese nationalist propaganda added to the mix. I won’t begrudge the film too much for the latter, this is, after all a Chinese movie made for Chinese audiences, in anticipation of the nation hosting the Olympic games for the first time in its history, and if anything it provides an interesting window into China’s official view of itself. The fact that the events take place prior to the country’s communist revolution does make for an interesting lens for the nationalist propaganda. For example, despite all the patriotic speeches, we never once see the national flag, and the government at the time is portrayed as bumbling if not corrupt. That said, I think most Western viewers will be primarily interested in the film for the kung-fu. There are several good fight scenes, including the massive battle at the end that provides most of the footage used in the film’s trailer.
As for the plot there are three distinct plot lines, that only occasionally intersect. All of the plots are convoluted, and on occasion they don’t make sense. For example, at one point I’m pretty sure somebody pawns a baby. I’m not going to recount the plots in any detail, because, honestly, if you’re going to watch this movie, it’s not going to be for the plot.
Overall, the movie is not without it’s strengths, in addition to some decent kung-fu sequences, there is a decent amount of genuine humor. Dicky Cheung is a lot of fun as Cheung Fung, bringing a great sense of comedic timing that transcends the language barrier, as well as bringing some decent dramatic skills when the film calls for it towards the end. I also want to note that Priscilla Wong and Debbie Goh are absolutely gorgeous in their roles as the two featured national team sprinters. Also, no film that I have reviewed so far has embraced the Olympic spirit with the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that we see here, given the spirit of my Olympic Film Festival, I have to give them credit for that, even if some of the enthusiasm felt like it was thoroughly state mandated. Unfortunately, these positives can’t quite get me to the point where I can recommend the film. The plot is disjointed and hard to follow, jumping in and out of storylines that really have little to do with each other. There are also far better kung-fu movies out there, movies that are heavier on the action, and lighter on the rah-rah jingoism. Therefore, I’ve got to tag this one as not worth seeing.