The Year of the Yao

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The Year of the Yao
Review (8/10)
(By Jeffrey Chen)

Few people have lives that lend themselves to fable as easily as Yao Ming's. Here is a Chinese man over seven feet tall -- already extremely unique in that regard -- playing basketball in Shanghai when, at 21 years old, forces converge to demand he become an international star and a sports idol. In the eyes of the Chinese, he's a symbol of athletic pride and a goodwill ambassador; for the National Basketball Association, he represents another big step in its attempt to globalize its market. Could Yao live up to this? The study of how he coped with the fame, attention, and various sources of pressure practically screams to be the subject of a documentary, so from directors/producers James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, here it is.

Because the subject itself is enough to guarantee interest, a straightforward documentary would be the easiest way to handle it. Thus, “The Year of the Yao” is straightforward, as much an advertisement for the NBA as it is an inside look at Yao's rookie year. One expects it to be a feel-good, emphasize-the-positive kind of movie, and it is. But there are several other fascinating angles to be found here; the film is able to mine its riches from a variety of sources.

For instance, it sets up a natural observation of East-West culture clash in a modernized state. Decades ago, much would have been made about the fact that the Chinese and the Americans have entirely different sets of values -- the differences themselves would have been a point of the study. Here, however, we get to see a world in which the differences have long been acknowledged, and how members of each culture willingly feel their way through to a better understanding. When players from the Houston Rockets, the NBA team that drafted Yao, talk about the contrasts between the way American players and Chinese players treat their opponents, it's encouraging and amusing to see how far we've come and how far we seem to be willing to go.

This culture clash is also emphasized in the curious relationship between Yao and his translator, Colin Pine. Pine is a young American who has learned the Chinese language (he's young enough to earn the comment, "I thought you'd be much older," from Yao when they meet) and he effectively narrates the movie. It's interesting to see the valuable strategy in assigning a translator whose first language/culture is not that of the athlete's. Pine ends up spending much of his time gently acclimating Yao to the American way of life. In the process, the two each gain an unlikely but eye-opening friend.

Meanwhile, Yao's year isn't an easy one, by any means, and the movie goes to lengths to show that, in the sports world, your background doesn't matter -- proving yourself in the game is the ultimate equalizer. It gets a bit of humorous mileage from challenges issued by ex-NBA star Charles Barkley before presenting us with Yao's ultimate obstacle -- Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers (as a die-hard Lakers fan, I took this all in very good humor as well). Shaq is the closest thing we get to a villain -- his shadow is everpresent, his oafishness up-played, and his ill-advised attempt at comedically declaring a showdown with Yao is the nearest we come to acknowledging any underlying cultural ignorance (although the mention of the rather silly Chinese-themed nights at the various arenas provides further evidence). Through it all, though, the film emphasizes the good that comes from sports and organized competition in general -- that in such situations, the playing field can indeed be leveled as people of different origins are able to achieve a comraderie that might not have materialized otherwise.

In this time when misunderstanding -- cultural, religious, sexual, you name it -- still cuts a deep wound throughout the world, it's easy to be cynical and dismiss “The Year of the Yao” as a positive-energy puff piece. But hope has to come from somewhere, even from small places like a documentary about a basketball player. Stern and Del Deo have given us a piece which leads us to believe that, in our modern world, a better understanding continues to grow. I don't think we should feel at all foolish in accepting that belief.

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