You don't have to be a hoops fanatic to enjoy "The Year of the Yao," slickly entertaining docu about Yao Ming, the first Chinese-born player ever to vie for superstardom in the National Basketball Assn. Fine Line Features pickup has enough appeal to attract a demographically diverse aud. Pic should score even more impressively in ancillary.

You don’t have to be a hoops fanatic, or even a sports aficionado of any sort, to enjoy “The Year of the Yao,” slickly entertaining docu about Yao Ming, the first Chinese-born player ever to vie for superstardom in the National Basketball Assn. Although it plays more like an officially authorized biography than an objective in-depth portrait, Fine Line Features pickup — which, not surprisingly, was co-produced by the NBA — has enough appeal to attract a demographically diverse aud. Pic should score even more impressively in ancillary arenas.

Co-directed by James D. Stern (who also helmed the Imax-size “Michael Jordan to the Max”) and Adam Del Deo, “Yao” follows the seven-foot, six-inch basketballer through the grueling games and culture shock that defined his first NBA season.

Beginning with his June 2002 selection as first-round draft pick by the Houston Rockets, Yao, then 22, finds himself shoved into the international spotlight.

Back home, Chinese fans (and, of course, image-conscious bureaucrats) are eager for their homeboy to honorably represent all 1.2 billion of his countrymen. In the States, however, more than a few observers, including sports commentator and ex-Rocket Charles Barkley, cynically question whether the big guy can play the NBA version of the game.

For a distressingly long period during pre- and early season games, Yao lives down to worst expectations as he struggles to find a comfort zone with new teammates. Indeed, his early efforts to play “American-style” (i.e., trash-talking, in your-face aggressive) are so wobbly that the notoriously voluble Barkley impulsively promises to kiss the backside of a fellow TNT cable network commentator if Yao ever has a 19-point game. To his credit, Barkley fulfills his end of the bargain after Yao finally catches on.

Despite his extremely limited command of English, Yao emerges as immensely engaging in his dogged determination and self-mocking humor. Pic stops well short of offering deep-dish psychological insights, but strongly suggests Yao’s disciplined upbringing by proud parents (who accompany him to Houston) and his own self-directed work ethic give him strength to perform gracefully under pressures.

Yao even maintains his cool during much-hyped match-ups with then-L.A. Laker Shaquille O’Neal, the game’s dominant big center.

Without stinting on sports action and talking-heads commentary — everyone from Bill Clinton to Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang get to weigh in with comments on Yao — filmmakers smartly focus on symbiotic relationship between Yao and another rookie: Colin Pine, a Mandarin-conversant Baltimore native who was ready to attend law school when offered the opportunity to work as Yao’s translator.

Early on, the affable, faintly nerdy-looking Pine admits he’s not a sports expert: “Chinese was my second language, basketball was my third.” Scenes showing how Pine faces own challenges while helping Yao cope with the stresses of an NBA career (and extracurricular activities such as commercial endorsements) are the compelling heart and soul of the pic. In funniest scenes, Pine introduces Yao to Taco Bell — which the basketballer finds less than satisfying — and explains the concept of road rage while driving Houston highways.

Bombastic musical score and fluid editing enhance the excitement during game sequences. On a tech level, however, “Year of the Yao” is most imaginative during the opening backgrounder montage by editor Jun Diaz (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”), who receives credit as creative director for the visually striking guide to Chinese history in general and Yao’s salad days in particular.

The Year of the Yao

Production

A Fine Line Features release of an Endgame Entertainment/NBA Entertainment production. Produced by James D. Stern, Adam Del Deo. Executive producers, Adam Silver, Gregg Winik, Bill Sanders. Co-producers, Christopher Chen, Paul Hirschheimer. Co-executive producer, Laurence Weitzman. Directed by James D. Stern, Adam Del Deo.

Crew

Camera (color), Michael Winik; editor, Jeff Werner, Michael Tolajian; music, James L. Venable; sound (Dolby Digital), Mitch Dorf; creative director, Jun Diaz. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Reel to Reel), Sept. 14, 2004. Running time: 87 MIN.

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