Director: Peter Chan
Cast: Gong Li, Huang Bo, Wu Gang, Peng Yuchang, Bai Lang
Runtime: 2 hrs 15 mins
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 1 October 2020
Synopsis: With glorious days from 5 consecutive championships in the 1980s, the women's national volleyball team of China had transcended the conventional definition of sports in the hearts of Chinese people. When the Chinese team was pitted against the US team led by Lang Ping at the 2008 Beijing Volleyball Game, everyone knew that it was a match that China could not lose, and certainly could not afford to lose. Defeated, the Chinese team plunged into the deepest abyss in three decades. As Lang Ping returned to her country to coach the team, many mused aloud as to whether China women's national volleyball team would be able to retrieve lost grounds. The film recounts the ups and downs, the sweat and sacrifice of the team over the past four decades. While the team’s persistence and teamwork became a national inspiration and collective memory in the 80s, can the team spirit be passed down to the new generation as China goes through rapid changes?
Rather than watching Gong Li masquerading as a half-baked witch in Mulan, why not watch the Chinese acting powerhouse as Lang Ping in the Peter Chan’s sports theme drama, Leap.
After a hiatus of six years (his last directorial effort was the 2013 Dearest), veteran Hong Kong director Peter Chan returns to craft a sports drama. Something not on Chan’s resume until now. Leap is a handsomely made tale on the surface. But political enthusiasts will definitely dismiss this as propaganda material and a tool for the Chinese government to stir up some patriotism in the hearts of millennials who aren’t particularly known for their perseverance and loyalty.
Just liked Chan’s American Dreams in China, this flick spans almost 40 years. Beginning in the late seventies where we see our two protagonists in their teenage years. Lang Ping (played by the daughter of the real-life Lang Ping) is the backup player of the women’s volleyball team who is determined to fight for a place in the main line-up while Zhonghe (Peng Yuchang) is the reluctant assistant coach. At their lowest points of their young lives, Ping and Zhonghe motivates each other constantly and dreams of a better future.
Years later, Ping left for further studies in the States and Zhonghe becomes the head coach of the women’s volleyball team. The next time we see both of the characters, Lang Ping is played by Gong Li and Huang Bo is Zhonghe. Lang Ping is now the coach for the US volleyball team. Their unexpected meetup place after so many years happened to be the Beijing Olympics in 2008. For the first time after so many years of being on the same team, the two best friends are now on opposite side of the court.
Instead of a touching portrayal of Lang Ping, the only woman who has won the Olympic as a player and a head coach, Chan has assembled a movie that showcased the unwavering spirit of the game. Strictly speaking, Leap is not a biographical sports epic about Lang Ping, Zhonghe or the countless volleyball players over the decades. Simply put, it’s a celebration of the ups and downs of China’s women volleyball on the whole from their five consecutive wins in the eighties to their subsequent defeats and their comeback in the Rio Olympics.
A lot of effort can be seen on screen to recreate the matches from the very first match against the Jiangsu men’s volleyball team. Surprisingly, Chan devoted plenty of the screentime to the different critical matches. The 1982 FIVB match against Japan, the 2008 Beijing Olympics against USA to the 2016 match against Brazil. Each match is admittedly done with immense details from the players (which incorporated some real players from the team), costumes and probably spruced up with CGI for some of the background detail.
Even though Chan employed amateur actors including players from the real-life volleyball team, the feeling of weariness, frustration and conceding defeat still come across as genuine and touching on the whole. Gong Li and Huang Bo as expected delivers a stellar performance. We could watch a whole movie involving them driving around, talking about life and we gladly fork out a movie ticket.
Brush away any thoughts on propaganda and Leap perfectly captures and depicts the struggles, blood and sweat of the volleyball team in the past. Perhaps the movie is right in insinuating that the current generation lacks the toughness, appreciation and determination of the older ones as what Zhonghe mentioned in passing- "Nowadays, no one will appear on the streets celebrating another win from the Chinese". Maybe it’s the right movie after all to recapture that spirit again in this tough times.
Chan isn’t finish in telling his stories. His next movie is yet another sports related one but this time round, he is doing a biopic on Li Na, the first Chinese tennis player to ever won the Grand Slam.
(A rousing true-life sports drama that features stellar performances from Gong Li and Huang Bo)
Review by Linus Tee