I've never really been into sports. Even at school the thought of running around after a ball never really appealed. I know coming from a man that must make me sound like some sort of freak, not liking sports is surely tantamount to my denying my masculinity, or so I've been led to believe in the past. How can I not be interested in the latest score, or how many millions a particular player is worth only for him to be worthless? How is it even possible not to know who is playing whom in the 'cup final'? Believe me I wish I knew, because such information can really help you out with the pub trivia machine! So imagine my horror when I received Year of the Yao, a sports documentary, through my letter box, compound that with the fact that it is about a sport that I know less than nothing; basket ball! However, I shouldn't have worried, because Year of the Yao is so much more; full of aspiration, cheer and disappointment, solid entertainment about a real life sports star able to bear the weight of two continents on his enormous shoulders and still come out on top.
Yao Ming, the Yao of the title, is a Chinese basket ball megastar. At seven foot six inches tall (the film calls him 7'5”, an old measurement) and coming from a family of basket ball players Yoa was destined for greatness. Already an established player in his native country of China, in 2002 the Denver Rockets used the prodigious 'first ball' to hire him into their team, he was, at that time, unknown to US audiences. Seen as a cultural icon, Yao carried the hopes and dreams of his fellow countrymen with him to America. There he was faced with learning a new language, and new playing style, a new culture and the press. It was a daunting prospect and a lesser man might have never even attempted the challenge, but Yao is no ordinary man, he took that challenge by the horns and shook it for all its worth. The film follows the story of Yao's first year with the Rockets, his ups and downs and the general hysteria that made up that first year.
In all honesty, I haven't been so caught up in a film for ages, the fact that it really happened makes it all the more enthralling; the filming style and the accompanying music are all used to dramatic effect, juxtaposing fans and family with the in game footage really draws you into the game, even if, like me, the game itself holds no interest. There were two matches that particularly stand out; Yao's fourth match, when he finally grasped the playing style and was able to silence all his critics; and against O'Neal, at the time the strongest and best player in the field. Both these games run match highlights to a backdrop of fiery music and fan reactions, creating an edge of the seat watching experience. But more than the matches we watch Yao as he struggles to comprehend his new surroundings, as he shoulders the hopes of his own nation and the legions of Rocket fans in a society that promotes the single hero, compared to the Chinese team play. The story is told through his interpreter, himself a young man, and the friendship that grew out of it. These two men, of different sides of the world are thrust together under the spotlight and both emerge unscathed. The year was a tumultuous one, the team gets to the play offs, only to hear the devastating news of its lead coach's illness forcing him to retire, and the subsequent loosing streak that followed. Even still there was still hope, it was all down to one match, but unlike the movies real life is frequently far crueller. Even though the team may have lost, Yao himself emerged triumphant, becoming an instant icon throughout the world (well the world of sports at least) and managing to take all the pressure within his stride. The film is not a sport documentary rather a view of the human spirit with a backdrop of sports. At once engaging and dramatic, I felt elevated and empowered by Yao's achievements. A testament to those achievements is the Rockets travelling to China themselves to play in a continent once thought closed to the US. Watch and enjoy.
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