China's passion for gymnastics comes with an extraordinary human toll, says Gan Chao's revelatory, often brutally unblinking documentary "The Red Race."

China’s passion for gymnastics comes with an extraordinary human toll, says Gan Chao’s revelatory, often brutally unblinking documentary “The Red Race.” Though interest in the item will spike in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing, the tender age of these mercilessly driven children and Gan’s cool, classical style ensure the pic’s relevance and shelf life whenever such competishes are mounted.

At Shanghai’s Luwan District Youth Athletic School, children apparently ages 5-7 are put through intensely manipulative training regimens that routinely become verbally and physically abusive. Usually disadvantaged kids brought from rural areas to train while living with friends or relatives, they are pushed, pulled, bent, struck, cajoled and jeered at by seemingly remorseless coaches.

“Is crying useful?” barks one, a taunt that takes on a chilling dimension when it’s revealed that the boys and girls are locked into unbreakable five-year contracts.

One child’s grandfather respectfully asks a trainer if they’re not being too hard on their young charges, but for the most part, the adults understand what’s at stake: “Get mom a big gold medal,” one woman tells her child. “You bear all mom’s hopes.”

Gan’s highly-charged message is clear: What price Olympic glory? An award-winning documentarian and nonfiction director/editor at Shanghai Media Group, the helmer is smart, and brave, enough to strip the film of narrative fat: no voiceovers, no formal identification of participants. Though disorienting, the strategy further dehumanizes participants, underscoring the idea that basic dignity and individualism have been removed from the process.

Tech package is crisp and precise. A pair of hard-edged Chinese rock tunes provide stark aural punctuation to the proceedings. Pic, which had no Mandarin title on the DVD furnished, is dedicated to the children.

The Red Race

China-Germany

Production

An NDR, Double Montage Production, SMG presentation and production. Produced by Barbara Biemann. Executive producer, Ying Qiming. Directed by Gan Chao.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Gong Wei; editor, Bas Roeterink; sound, Xu Hailan. Reviewed on DVD, Sydney, June 17, 2008. (In SilverDocs Film Festival, Silver Spring, Md. -- competing.) Running time: 70 MIN. (Mandarin dialogue)
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