Step Back to Glory
Taiwan, 2013, colour, 2.35:1, 124 mins.
Director: Zhang Borui 张柏瑞.
Follow-your-dream sports heartwarmer is formulaic but effective within its limits.
Taibei, 2009. Sixteen-year-old Li Chunying (Guo Shuyao) has been sent by her grandmother (Bai Minghua) to Taibei Girls’ High School on a bed-and-board sports scholarship, as she cannot afford to send Li Chunying to a local senior high. Along with two other scholarship holders, Wang Qihua (Zhang Dizhen) and Huang Yujiao (Zhuo Zhihan), Li Chunying joins the school’s tug-of-war team as a junior, and soon finds not only that she has to train hard under the team’s tough trainer, Guo (Zhuang Kaixun), but also that the sports students are looked down on by the regular ones because of their academic weakness. When one of the team, Li Guanping (Wang Ziyun), has her hand injured by her alcoholic father (Chen Muyi), Li Chunying defends her when Guo wants to stand her down. Guo ends up dismissing Li Chunying because of her disrespectful attitude, and in a huff she goes back to her village of Zhuifen, near Taizhong, central Taiwan. However, her team-mates and a sympathetic teacher, Wu (Yang Qianpei), call her, urging her to come back, and Guo gives her a second chance. Li Chunying starts training hard and behaves herself. With the 2010 Chinese Cup Tournament coming up, Guo takes the team to nearby Yilan Boys’ High School for a practice match. Li Chunying takes Li Guanping’s place and the girls beat the boys. One of the team, Xia An (Dai Jiawen), also takes a liking to the boys’ leader, Basang (Lin Sijie). With pressure at the school to cut funding for the tug-of-war team, and little government support for sports, Guo wants to draw attention to his students by having them compete internationally. When Wu discovers the official age limit has been lowered to 16, Guo determines to get the team to the forthcoming World Games in Seoul, but first they must win the local Chinese Cup – which they lost to Huayu Girls’ High School the previous year – and then raise money for the trip to South Korea, which will cost some NT$1 million.
On the face of it, a teenage girls’ tug-of-war team doesn’t sound like very cinematic material for a follow-your-dream sports movie. But in the event Step Back to Glory 志气, though totally formulaic and prone to some of the jingoism that such movies are heir to (Taiwan’s Jump Ashin! 翻滚吧！阿信, 2011, and South Korea’s As One 코리아, 2012, among recent examples), does a reasonable job, looks good in widescreen, and pushes all the right heartwarming buttons in its finale. More surprisingly, amid all the usual lessons in teamwork, dedication and respect for one’s trainer, the script directly critiques lack of government support in Taiwan for sports.
Unlike Jump Ashin!, which featured Peng Yuyan 彭于晏 [Eddie Peng] as a well-known gymnast, Step Back doesn’t have a period setting to rely on between the rote sequences of grit and training. But it has a cleaner, more focused plot and a large ensemble cast that blends well together while also developing some individual personalities of their own. The star attraction is petite pop-star Guo Shuyao 郭书瑶 – in her first leading role after playing a kooky workmate in the delightful When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep 南方小羊牧场 (2012) – who’s engaging as a perkily determined girl from the sticks and convincingly plays 16 when she’s actually in her early 20s; but despite clever camerawork, she’s less believable as a member of an otherwise beefy tug-of-war team. As the hard-arsed coach, Zhuang Kaixun 庄凯勋 is okay but not much more; presenter-TV actress Yang Qianpei 杨千霈 has more character as a sympathetic teacher.
First-time director Zhang Borui 张柏瑞 has wisely teamed up with an experienced crew, including executive director Gao Bingquan 高炳权 – who co-directed The Soul of Bread 爱的面包魂 (2012) and also worked as associate director on Mainland first-timer Guo Jingming’s hit, Tiny Times 1 小时代 (2013) – co-writer Yu Shangmin 于尚民 (mystery-drama Make Up 命运化妆师, 2011), d.p. Feng Xinhua 冯信华 (Tears 眼泪, 2009; One Day 有一天, 2009; Juliets 茱丽叶, 2010), plus producer Lin Shengguo 林胜国. He’s also surrounded the young no-name cast with reliable character actors like Chen Muyi 陈慕义 as an alcoholic father, Gao Yushan 高玉珊 as a chummy Hokkien cook, Yu Meiren 于美人 as the headmistress, Chen Youfang 陈幼芳 as the school’s doubting director and celebrity singer Bengbeng Ge 蹦蹦哥 (aka Chen Peigang 陈沛纲) as the cook’s camp son.
The fictionalised film was inspired by Jingmei Girls’ High School winning at the 2010 World Indoor Tug-of-War Championships in Italy, and a member of that team, tomboyish Amos Tanabima 阿摩斯•塔那彼玛, cameos as one of the tuggers. (One major change has been to relocate the event to Seoul.) The film’s English title refers to how, unlike in other sports, participants have to step back to win. The Chinese title simply means “Aspiration” or (in a good sense) “Ambition”.
Presented by We Are Family (TW), CMC Entertainment (TW), Europe China Venture Capital Group (TW), Aga Media (TW), Ministry of Culture (TW). Produced by Ambition Movie (TW), AGA Media (TW).
Script: Zhang Borui, Yu Shangmin. Photography: Feng Xinhua. Editing: Xiao Ruguan. Music: Lv Shengfei. Sound: Du Duzhi. Executive direction: Gao Bingquan.
Cast: Guo Shuyao (Li Chunying), Zhuang Kaixun (Guo, trainer), Yang Qianpei (Wu, teacher), Yu Meiren (Lin, headmistress), Chen Youfang (Cai, school director), Gao Yushan (canteen cook), Hannah Quinlivan (Zhang Ruoxi), Bai Minghua (Li Chunying’s grandmother), Xiao Hudou (Old Tian), Chen Muyi (Li Guanping’s father), Meng Tingli (Li Guanping’s mother), Bengbeng Ge [Chen Peiggang] (canteen cook’s son), Gao Mengjie (Chen, Yilan trainer), Xu Huaiyi (Wang Limin, snooty student), Zhang Dizhen (Wang Qihua), Zhuo Zhihan (Huang Yujiao), Yu Yajun (Zhang Jingya), Wang Ziyun (Li Guanping), Tian Jiarong (Qin Jiayou), Amos Tanabima (Amos), Guo Anjie (Ding Jie’an), Hu Tingying (Chen Meiling), Dai Jiawen (Xia An), Lin Sijie (Basang, Yilan High School team leader).
Release: Taiwan, 8 Feb 2013.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 7 Oct 2013.)