Taiwan, 2011, colour, 1.85:1, 126 mins.
Director: Lin Yuxian 林育贤.
Follow-your-dream heartwarmer centred on a male gymnast is okay but unoriginal.
Yilan, northeast Taiwan, mid-1980s. Lin Yuxin, aka Xin, is from a family of Chinese Opera performers; but since a schoolboy he has dreamed of becoming a gymnast. Now a teenager (Peng Yuyan), he still trains under Huang (Xia Jingting) and is still nagged by his mother (Pan Lili) to give up the sport and concentrate on the fruit-retail business she runs on her own. Under pressure from her, Huang removes Xin’s name from his team’s official list. Meanwhile, Xin strikes up a long-distance friendship with a young woman at Huashang Telecom’s paging service (Lin Chenxi). One night some young thugs led by Papaya (Chen Handian) take revenge on Xin for standing up to them earlier; a fight ensues, in which Xin’s friend, Pickle (Ke Yulun), rescues him. The two move to Taibei and start working in the petty underworld, but Pickle gets hooked on amphetamines and Xin becomes more and more disillusioned with his new life. He considers returning to his hometown and seriously taking up gymnastics again.
Jump Ashin! 翻滚吧！阿信, the third feature by Taiwan writer-director Lin Yuxian 林育贤, is a heartwarming biopic about his gymnast elder brother that’s not so much a career swerve – after his feature debut Exit No. 6 6出口 (2007) – as a return to roots. More precisely, it’s linked to his likeable 2004 documentary Jump! Boys 翻滾吧! 男孩, which followed a small group of kids one summer as they went through intensive training under his brother Lin Yuxin 林育信, aka Xin 阿信. [The film’s Chinese title even mirrors the earlier documentary’s.] With the real-life champion gymnast played by local pin-up Peng Yuyan 彭于晏 [Eddie Peng], who made his big-screen debut in Exit No. 6, Ashin! emerges as a familiar tale of a smalltown boy finding purpose through sport that’s wrapped around an equally familiar story of delinquency and drugs.
On a technical level the movie is good at evoking a period in Taiwan’s history, from the late 1980s to early 1990s, when the island’s young people started to experience new freedoms. Ashin! is only peripherally about that – via the hero’s own story of moving away from gymnastics to a life of crime and then back again – but it’s always there as a background narrative. The simple but effective production and costume design, by Wang Zixin 王子欣 and Huang Yu’nan 黄育南, evokes a now-vanished world of telephone pagers and when Taibei was seen as the Big City, and the performances likewise. Taiwan-born, Canadian-raised Peng convincingly looks like a serious gymnast, and with clever cutting and framing even gives the impression of doing his own moves: overall, he brings a hunky star lustre to the role that isn’t always on the written page. As his best friend, Ke Yulun 柯宇纶 is okay and, as his naggy mother, Pan Lili 潘丽丽 is fractionally better.
Where the movie falls down is in its script, which is little more than a collection of cliches about following your dream, plus a stitched-in romantic subplot with a (fairly obvious) twist. At 90 minutes this would be okay, but at over two hours Ashin! pushes its audience’s patience rather too far, especially with its over-long and rather confused middle section in which our hero and his best friend move to crime-ridden Taibei. This chunk, with its saturated colours and hyped emotions, comes closest to the freewheeling-youth drama Exit No. 6; but sitting in the middle of a thematically very different movie, it’s too much of a distraction from what should be providing the main drama (Xin’s interest in gymnastics vs. his family background). The finale, set at a competition in 1994, avoids some of the more obvious cliches, but still doesn’t say much more than “follow your dream”.
Presented by One Attitude Film (TW).
Script: Wang Guoguang, Wang Liwen, Lin Yuxian. Photography: Xia Shaoyu. Editing: Chen Xiaodong, Liao Qingsong. Music: Wang Xiwen. Production design: Wang Zixin. Costume design: Huang Yu’nan. Sound: Gao Weiyan, Zheng Xuzhi. Visual effects: Lin Zhemin Johnny Lin. Gymnastics advice: Lin Yuxin.
Cast: Peng Yuyan [Eddie Peng] (Lin Yuxin/Ashin), Ke Yulun (Caipu/Pickle), Chen Handian (Mugua/Papaya), Lin Chenxi (pager receptionist), Pan Lili (Lin Yuxin’s mother), Xia Jingting (Huang, trainer), Long Shaohua (Yilan triad boss), Hong Liu (Lin Yuxin’s maternal grandfather), He Jie (He Zhengshu), Li Yichen (young Lin Yuxin), Li Guanyi, Cai Yunyou (Lin Yuxian, Lin Yuxin’s younger brother).
Premiere: Taipei Film Festival (Co-Opening Film), 24 Jun 2011.
Release: Taiwan, 12 Aug 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 6 Nov 2011.)