Director Peter Chan
Starring Gong Li, Huang Bo, Yuchang Peng, Gang Wu
Alternative Names 夺冠

When you think of popular, or famous, sports teams from around the world, what comes to mind?

Is it famous Indian Cricket Team?

Or perhaps the Chicago Bulls from the 90s?

What about Manchester United or Barcelona FC?

How many of you would have picked the Chinese Women’s Volleyball team? Triple Olympic Gold medal winners, and 5 time Volleyball World Cup champions.

Not many I would guess. So will this movie change your impression and knowledge of them? Read on, or watch the video below, to find out.

What's this Movie About?

This movie loosely follows the almost 40 year career of decorated Chinese women’s volleyball champion “Jenny” Lang Ping, from her humble beginnings as a skinny 18 year old pushed to train harder before being selected for the national team, to her first championship win in Japan.

The movie then shifts focus to her long time friend Chen Zhonghe, as he steers the team to a gold medal in 2004 Olympics, and then to 2008 as the Chinese team meets the Lang Ping coached Team USA, where they were defeated.

The movie then shifts a third time to follow Lang Ping again as she takes the reigns of the National Team again, with her original stint in the late 90s being ignored by the film, as she takes the team into the modern times with a fresh approach to the game and building a new team.

Finally then, the movie follows the 2016 Olympic team as they stage one of the most remarkable Olympic Games comebacks to defeat the unstoppable Brazilian team and eventually take out the Gold Medal.

Is it Worth Watching?

If you know anything about Lang Ping and the Chinese Women’s Volleyball Team, then I would assume you’d be all over this film.

Conversely, if you know nothing about them and love sports movies, like me, then you’ll be all over this film as well.

The problem then lies for the people in the middle. What are they going to get out of this film?

On one hand, it full of a lot of patriotic themes. They’re very strong and at times a little off-putting.

On the other hand, the sports scenes are terrific. Well-choreographed, but still with a liberal use of CGI, they’re exciting, with the way the sound is used with elements like slow-motion and close-ups. It’s all very spine-tingling stuff.

And mostly accurate. You can watch the 2016 performance on YouTube, and there isn’t much difference between the two.

For that alone, it was worth it for me.

What are Some of the Memorable Moments?

The modern re-creations of the Olympic games: the 2004, 2008 and especially the 2016 matches, are well done. With the Quarterfinal match between Brazil being the absolute highlight. As mentioned, the real match is on YouTube and well worth a watch if you don’t believe what happened.

It’s worth mentioning the performances, specifically of the athletes. Lang Ping’s real life daughter Lydia Bia plays her mother in the first half of the movie. It’s obvious acting is not her forte, but I assume the opportunity to portray her mother in one of the most important parts of her life was an opportunity too good to pass up. It’s an inspired casting choice, and it kind of breaks the fourth wall later on the movie when Lang Ping is shown talking to her daughter on the phone. The voice is definitely Lydia Bai, but the actress playing her, who never speaks, is the daughter from Sheep Without A Shepherd.

And then we get most of the 2016 Gold Medal playing as themselves in the latter part of the movie, with the main focus being on Zhu Ting, whose monster effort won the Quarterfinal game in Rio, and strangely on Zhang Changning, the beach volleyball turned indoor play with the habit of spinning the ball constantly before serving, a hallmark from her beach volleyball days.

What's Not So Hot?

The biggest issue with the movie, is that I don’t know whose story it wants to tell.

First we start with a young Chen Zhonghe joining as an assistant to the national team, and his subsequent friendship with Lang Ping. We follow their friendship as she goes from nothing into a champion.

The movie then forgets about Lang Ping for a while as it focuses on the older Chen Zhonghe as he coaches the 2004 team, and then when he meets Lang Ping in the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The movie then shifts focus to cover Lang Ping taking over as coach, building the team, and ending on the 2016 Quarterfinal match.

The problem is at no time do we really get to know anything about either Lang Ping or Chen Zhonghe outside of volleyball. It’s almost like they aren’t human, but volleyball bureaucrats. We get one scene of Chen at home at the end watching the game on TV, and another briefly of Lang Ping shopping where she is accosted for parking in a handicap zone. Otherwise, its like these two don’t have any life outside of volleyball.

Not only that, but it seems parts of Chen Zhonghe’s story is missing, as evident from footage in trailers that aren’t in the final cut, and the story of the real Chen being displeased with his portrayal on the screen.

If I was to take a guess, Peter Chan probably wanted to make the movie about Lang Ping, but was told no by the CCP, and forced to add other elements that didn’t quite blend well his original vision.

And with this in mind, his upcoming biopic about tennis player Li Na is looking a little shaky.  

Overall Impressions

Luckily the sports scenes are exciting enough to watch that it makes some of the other problems a minor distraction in the background. And like most people, you’ll be here for the sport scenes.

I don’t think the end product turned out quite what the director, or maybe even the real Lang Ping, had in mind, with its very country-first, team-first approach. And that doesn’t work when you're making a biopic. Add in the rather average performance from Gong Li and it’s a movie that a little tough to recommend for a casual viewer, but still has enough to keep you entertained.

My decision on if you should watch this: I recommend it. But it comes with a caveat that you’d really need to enjoy sports films to get the most from it.

If you’ve seen it, what did you think?