棒！少年 (Bang ! Shao Nian)
China, 2020, 110’, Mandarin
Directed by: Xu Hui-jing
Script: Xu Hui-jing
Editing: Hsu Hsiao-Ming, Liao Ching-Song
Music: Chang Chen-Yue, Pen Kungfu
Sound: Zhang Tianfu
Producer: Qi Kang
Executive Producer: Ruby Chen
Production Companies: iQiyi, CNEX
Cast: Ma Hu (himself); Liang Zhenshuang (himself); Zhang Jinxin (main coach); Sun Lingfeng (coach); Guo Zhongjian (coach)
Date of First Release in Territory: December 11th, 2020
Sport as social redemption is at the heart of this honest and touching documentary that reflects the best humanistic traditions of the genre. Directed by Xu Huijing, a documentary filmmaker who tackles social issues, Tough Out – winner of the prestigious FIRST Film Festival 2020 in the documentary section – is the story of a junior baseball team that trains in a suburb of Beijing. The team members – children from disadvantaged backgrounds – are recruited by Zhang Jinxin, an aging legendary professional coach who founded a charity baseball school. His goal is not only to increase the popularity of the sport in China – where it is still little known – but also to help young athletes traumatised by coming up the hard way to develop confidence in themselves and their futures.
The film focuses on two members of the team, both of them headstrong, but very different from each other. Ma Hu is 11 years-old, he is Hui – a Muslim ethnicity – and lives with his grandfather in a remote village in northwest China when he is recruited by Zhang’s team; he is undoubtedly difficult, a liar and a rebel, and is easily dispirited and argumentative, sometimes leading to violent clashes with his teammates. Liang Zhenshuang, on the other hand, hails from an orphanage where he was abandoned at birth with his twin brother, although they were immediately separated. He’s very sensitive, frequently given to melancholy. Along with the rest of the team, the two are put through their paces rigorously, requiring self-discipline and determination that is often beyond them.
The coaches, who include Sun Linfeng, the undisputed star of baseball in China, have attitudes towards the boys that range from paternalistic to severe to accommodating, but they are always completely dedicated to their mission and refuse to give up on their young charges, even when the prospect of turning these “dysfunctional” kids into athletes seems beyond their grasp. One of the most accomplished aspects of the film is its lack of sentimentality, even in scenes that could easily lend themselves to being overly tear-jerking – these children would be destined for a future of destitution or even criminality if it were not for the coaches’ total commitment to them, but the film refuses to portray them as either heroes or victims.
The circumstances of the team become even more precarious when the administrators are threatened with eviction because the site of the training centre has been sold to property developers. Concern for the future of the team is mixed with excitement about the outcome of a championship that the team has been invited to participate in in the United States. The American leg of the film provides some of its most memorable moments: the ability to adapt of these children, who go from extreme poverty to luxurious American hotels without batting an eyelid as if they were inveterate travellers, is incredible – the scene in which the rebellious Ma Hu falls asleep wrapped in a duvet with the American flag printed on it takes on an unintentional symbolic aspect.
Tough Out is a film that portrays the best and worst of contemporary China, the traditional ethics that underlie the country's extraordinary development but also the social cost of this development; it deals with sensitive issues – child abandonment, poverty, corporate greed – directly, but without causing offence. On the contrary, it offers a glimmer of hope for the future not only of the young athletes in the film but for China as a whole, all the while avoiding sentimentality.
Xu Hui-jing (Shan Xi, 1984) worked in the TV department of Southern Weekly before joining the Chinese Channel of Phoenix Satellite TV in Hong Kong. He has worked as an independent documentarist for over ten years, and his social issue films have picked up numerous international prizes, including the Special Jury Award of the 20th Sheffield Documentary Film Festival e lo Special Jury Award del 50th Chicago International Film Festival.
2010 – River Flow River Bank
2012 – Mothers
2016 – The Spokersperson
2017 – Change
2020 – Tough Out