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Review: Weeds on Fire (2016)

Weeds on Fire

点五步

Hong Kong, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 94 mins.

Director: Chen Zhifa 陈志发 [Stevefat].

Rating: 6/10.

Charming but generic 1980s high-school movie, based on the true story of a Hong Kong baseball team.

STORY

Hong Kong, 1984. Xie Zhilong (Lin Yaosheng) and Fan Jinwei (Hu Zitong), best friends since childhood, both live on the Heshe [Wo Che] public-housing estate in Shatian [Sha Tin], a district in Hong Kong’s New Territories. They’re also pupils at the unruly Jijue [Kei Kok] high school, whose headmaster Lu Guanghui (Liao Qizhi), in order to improve discipline, proposes using a government grant of HK$630,000 to create Hong Kong’s first Chinese youth baseball team – in a city with no baseball culture. Xie Zhilong’s home life is strained: his father (Sun Limin) is distant and his Mainland mother (Shui Jie) wants to return to China. The headmaster makes sure that both Xie Zhilong and Fan Jinwei, two of the biggest troublemakers, are in the team, and his training regimen is strict. Meanwhile, Fan Jinwei chases after a fellow student, Zhijing (Tan Shanyan), whom he spotted playing volleyball, and Xie Zhilong dreams about a pretty neighbour, Ling (Wang Simin), but is too shy to approach her. Lu Guanghui names the team Shatin Martins 沙燕. But their first tryout, against much younger players, is a disaster. At their first real match, versus the Grizzlies team of Americans, Xie Zhilong and Fan Jinwei fall out after Lu Guanghui tells the former to replace the latter (who’s been fooling around) as a pitcher. When the Shatin Martins take part in the Baseball Youth Championship, Fan Jinwei has left school, joined a triad gang and also argued with Zhijing, who’s now pregnant. As Xie Zhilong also has his own problems, the Shatin Martins move up through the championships, reaching the finals versus Japan’s Buffaloes.

REVIEW

You don’t need to be a baseball fan, or know anything about the sport, to appreciate Weeds on Fire 点五步, a generic coming-of-age, period Hong Kong high-school movie lightly dusted with an “inspirational” sporting theme. The game isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of the film nor given heavy nationalistic baggage as in the Taiwan production Kano (2000); nor, in a territory that has no baseball culture, is it used as a metaphor for outsider status and behaviour, as in the gay Hong Kong indie City without Baseball 无野の城 (2008). Instead, it’s an average, often charming, always formulaic mixture of teenage friendship, brawling, school pranks and chasing/dreaming about girls against a background of training for the territory’s first Chinese youth baseball team.

Though it’s based on a true story, first-time director Chen Zhifa 陈志发 [Stevefat] and his writing team have taken a few liberties with the facts. The Shatin Martins 沙燕 team was set up in 1983, not 1984, and in a primary, not secondary (high) school. However, by making the students teenagers rather than pre-teens there are many more opportunities for characterisation; and by shifting the date forward a bit, the script can underline how it was a time of major change, with the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the territory’s handover to China, as well as local events like the first dragon-boat race on the Chengmen [Shing Mun] river in the new town of Shatian [Sha Tin], New Territories, where the action is set. It also enables the makers to do some political flag-waving, bookending the film with mention of the team’s 30th anniversary over shots of the Umbrella Movement encampment in late 2014 – a rather strained link between sporting courage and public protest that diminishes rather than enhances the movie. Weeds would lose nothing by having these bookends chopped off.

Performances are solid by the younger cast (all acting way below their real ages), with newcomer Hu Zitong 胡子彤, 24, a real-life baseball player, leading the way in the early going as firebrand Fan Jinwei, while the more experienced Lin Yaosheng 林耀声, 27, trails behind as the shy Xie Zhilong, plagued by his own shyness and family strains. As Hu’s character gets involved in girlfriend and triad problems (both straight out of the teenage-film handbook), Lin’s likeably carries the film to its inspirational ending in a match vs (yes!) a Japanese team. The girls aren’t much more than ciphers, though TV’s Tan Shanyan 谈善言, 26, who had a small role as a cop in Helios 赤道 (2015), makes the most of her limited opportunities as Fan’s hard-to-get girlfriend. Most of all, however, Weeds is a good showcase for veteran character actor Liao Qizhi 廖启智 [Liu Kai-chi], 63, who here gets top billing. The character’s fascination with baseball is never explained but Liao, in an underplayed performance, brings a lifetime’s experience to making the strict-but-kindly headmaster seem less of a cliche. He also bears a passing resemblance to the real person.

In general, writer-director Chen, who’s in his mid-20s and wasn’t even born when the story is set, plays down any soppiness, despite the strong current of nostalgia that runs beneath the surface. Made on a tiny budget of HK$2 million from the Film Development Fund, Weeds looks way better than its bottom line would suggest, thanks to a seasoned crew that includes d.p.-director Ke Xingpei 柯星沛 [O Sing-pui] – also doubling as producer alongside experienced writer-director-producer Chen Qingjia 陈庆嘉 [Chan Hing-kai] – and art director Pan Yisen 潘燚森 (A Simple Life 桃姐, 2011). The Chinese title means “Half a Step”, referring to those with the courage to go that little bit farther, as a final intertitle reminds the audience (“Losing or winning isn’t the most important thing. The most important is…” etc etc).

CREDITS

Presented by CreateHK (HK), Film Development Fund (HK). Produced by Flash Glory (HK).

Script: Chen Zhifa [Stevefat], Huang Zhiyang, Ye Yuying, Xu Zhisheng. Photography: Ke Xingpei [O Sing-pui]. Editing: Liang Zhuolin, Chen Zhifa [Stevefat]. Music: Dai Wei. Art direction: Pan Yisen. Sound: Chen Zhuoheng, Nie Jirong. Action: Yang Jingjing. Visual effects: Zhao Zhenbang (Pigture Creations, Itchy Creation). Baseball advice: Zhou Debang.

Cast: Liao Qizhi [Liu Kai-chi] (Lu Guanghui), Lin Yaosheng (Xie Zhilong), Hu Zitong (Fan Jinwei), Pan Canliang (Zeng, Shatian chief commissioner), Sun Limin (Xie Zhilong’s father), Tan Shanyan (Zhijing, Fan Jinwei’s girlfriend), Cen Jiaqi (Chen Qiang), Shui Jie (Xie Zhilong’s mother), Wang Simin (Ling, Xie Zhilong’s dream girl), Lin Haifeng [Jan Lamb] (voiceover), Ti Lexi (young Xie Zhilong), Zheng Yuxuan (young Fan Jinwei), Wu Jinquan (Fan Jinwei’s gang boss), Wang Qingnan, He Wei (gangsters).

Premiere: Hong Kong Film Festival (Hong Kong Panorama 2015-16), 26 Mar 2016.

Release: Hong Kong, 25 Aug 2016.