SATURDAY, 9/18/04 – I was fortunate enough a couple days ago to see the world premiere of the new Yao Ming documentary “The Year of the Yao” at the Toronto Film Festival. Unfortunately, neither Yao nor Colin Pine were able to attend since they are both in China, but it was still worth the trip.
Understanding the film was produced in part by NBA Entertainment, I was tempted to think there was a big chance that the film would not provide much depth beyond what you would see in other NBA productions, like the weekly TV show “Inside Stuff.” Or perhaps it would just be a long 88-minute infomercial on how great Yao Ming or the NBA was, or just rehash obvious facts mostly everyone already knew. It was just difficult to think otherwise since this is probably one of the few serious film projects the NBA has taken on outside of “Whatever Happened to Michael Ray.” But I walked away pleasantly surprised that the film took chances, and even I — a guy who knows just about everything about Yao since he arrived in the U.S. — learned more than I thought I would.
I’ll forcefully restrain myself to not write a detailed account of the film to avoid spoiling it for those people who plan to see it once it’s released, but I will provide some highlights. [The film was picked up by a major studio the day after it was shown in Toronto, and will be distributed theatrically sometime in the future. I’ll let you know when I find out.]
The opening of the film started off with some impressive special effects, like when it captured the hustle-and-bustle of a busy Chinese cityscape. My initial thought upon seeing these effects was that this film was not going to be a normal documentary. The producers obviously wanted to make a clear statement they wanted this film to look like it was deserving to be shown in theaters, not just on PBS.
Since I am a resident of the U.S., I appreciated the filming that took place in China that provided perspective on the expectations being placed on Yao in his home country, the history of basketball in China, and the passion the Chinese have for the sport. This was obviously not a film where they were going to keep the budget so low where they would make their one obligatory trip to China and quickly check off the list that requirement. My understanding is that at least four trips were made to China during filming. I don’t know how what the actual number was, but they obviously spent a lot of time there.
The film does a good job of reaching into the archives and showing Yao from his youth. It was interesting to see footage of Yao playing basketball as a wiry teenager, something most fans in the U.S. have never seen. I also liked how the cameras started rolling for this movie even before Yao arrived in the U.S. Before his departure for the States, one of the most touching scenes involved Yao in a somewhat formal meeting in China. He sat at a table, as the obvious center-of-attention among Chinese dignitaries who were expressing their hopes that he would represent their country well. It was captivating to be a “fly on the wall” and witness seeing the weight of an entire country being placed on one man’s shoulders. Not something you see every day.
Before the film started, I happened to speak with a studio representative who first saw the film at a limited screening on Tuesday, and who ultimately picked up the film for theatrical distribution. She was telling me the audience on Tuesday – probably a very discriminating audience of critics and people in the film industry — were laughing and applauding throughout the film. That raised my expectations even more. But as the film progressed, I soon understood what she was talking about.
There are many humorous scenes as Yao traverses his way through the NBA culture, such as when he first meets Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley — which provoked big laughs from the crowd of several hundred! And some of the comments from his teammates regarding his overwhelming stature was interesting to hear considering these guys are millionaires who are hard to impress, including the fact they see 7-foot tall guys all the time. They were just as amazed at Yao’s 7’6″ frame as any average 5’8″ guy off the street.
Also funny was Yao’s first trip to Taco Bell, and the tour of his new home in Houston. Again, I won’t steal thunder from the movie, but when he gets to his bedroom window, watch what he does. The crowd roared! This was the kind of behind-the-scenes action I was hoping to see.
Of course, Yao is the star of the film, but clearly a reluctant one. For those people who have followed his career closely, this is no surprise considering the understated giant’s persona. Yao doesn’t really open up and provide observations in the film that most Yao-maniacs don’t already know about, but the comments he does make in Chinese (and translated to English) that could be very interesting to casual observers of Yao’s career thus far. What gives old Yao die-hards a sense of who he is comes through our observation of Yao as he goes through his new world in the West, accompanied by his teammates, coaches, family members, and translator Colin Pine.
Some of my favorite scenes revolve around Yao’s interaction with Colin, who he first meets upon his arrival at Houston’s main airport. Pine had been employed once as a translator of documents for the State department, but he never had a job like this one the world stage. He admits in the film he was “scared to death.”
The challenge to learn not only the Western culture, but the complicated language of basketball the Houston Rockets use during their practices is a struggle for both Yao and Pine at first. The obstacles that both Yao and Pine face in this new world is riveting to watch, and prompted NetFlix critic and CNN reporter James Miccoli on Friday to state the relationship they form makes for “a great human story.” Colin and Yao develop a good friendship, but even Colin himself admits at the end of the film that he doesn’t know what Yao is thinking deep inside. This chasm between the two characters makes you curious to see if the pair will ever become very close friends. It just shows how private a person Yao is, and despite Pine’s fluency with the language and knowledge of Chinese customs, how culturally different Yao and Pine still remain.
The NBA could have sugar-coated some of the events that occurred in Yao’s rookie season and swept them under the proverbial rug, but the league took some chances to expose some of the not-so-proud realities of the league. For example, I had never seen the tape of Shaq’s controversial comments toward Yao when he used a fake Chinese accent to mock the language, but they showed it — as embarrassing as it was for Shaq and the league. The NBA and the producers could have also hid how fatigued Yao was getting from all the demands being placed on him by sponsors and the league, such as being whisked from one commercial shoot or appearance to another. They also showed many of the plays where Yao didn’t look his best on the court, like the infamous Stephon Marbury cross-over that put Yao on his backside, and the resultant denigrating laughter from Yao’s opponents on the bench.
I also was impressed with some of the nuances of the film that rarely get noticed (except by film industry people), but make a big difference in the overall film experience. For example, before he is introduced in the film, Pine narrates off-camera and provides professional quality voice-overs. Pine also gives his unique perspective to what was happening to Yao throughout the film, which is extremely valuable considering Yao’s reserved disposition. The use of quick-editing also keeps the film moving so that you don’t get bored with the same look, or feel they are trying to stretch the film to 88 minutes. The editing also provides a comedic element to some of humorous moments mentioned above. Finally, the music, scored by James Venable (“Star Wars: Clone Wars”) adds richness to the film one would not expect from a documentary.
Of course, this would not be an objective review if I didn’t discuss some points I thought could improve the film. For Yao-maniacs, the film spends some time on the second Yao vs. Shaq match-up in Houston. They actually do a great job of recreating the intensity leading up to that match-up. Now that Yao and Shaq have met several times, it’s easy to forget how big of a deal those duels were in that first season. But I guess for the benefit for those folks who aren’t too familiar with Yao, they film the reactions of fans who are watching that game on television and in a sports bar for dramatic effect. Since many of us saw that game and remember everything that happened in it, I have to force myself to remember that many people did not. This thought was confirmed when the theater erupted with applause at key moments during that game’s action.
In addition, I was hoping to see some footage of Yao’s second year in the NBA where he became even more successful on the court. For many of us who have been waiting for the film to come out, we may have been under the impression that filming had also taken place in Yao’s second season. So my expectations may have been raised without a solid reason. Later on I realized that the film’s title – “The Year of the Yao” — is the producers’ method of saying that it’s only Yao’s rookie year that has been chronicled…not a calendar year, but an NBA season. Sure, it would have been great to have “rookie” somewhere in the title to set my expectations correctly, but that wouldn’t have made the title sound as slick. Maybe when the film is promoted the producers and distributors can somehow market the film as a chronicle of Yao’s rookie year since many fans believe Yao’s journey continued to evolve that second season. For many people not in the movie business, it may not be understood that films can take a long time to edit and prepare for release. After all, this isn’t an “Inside Stuff” episode that can be cranked out quickly like other NBA productions.
Overall, this film is a can’t-miss for Yao die-hards, or any person who is just curious to learn more about him. Through this film, Yao-maniacs will learn more about what Yao went through during that first season, and all will laugh more than they would expect. I didn’t think they could make 88 minutes of Yao all that captivating, but they succeeded. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll let you know when I hear the film is released for mass distribution.