×

Film Review: ‘To the Fore’

Propulsive cycling action elevates this otherwise blandly inspiring sports drama from the usually darker Dante Lam.

With:
Eddie Peng, Shawn Dou, Choi Si-won, Wang Luodan, Andrew Lin, Carlos Chan, Ouyang Nana. (Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, English, Italian dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4788638/?ref_=ttexrv_exrv_tt

More propulsive than many a car chase and as bone-crunching as any chopsocky fistfight, the pro-cycling races that drive Dante Lam’s “To the Fore” rep a feat of action choreography and virtuoso lensing seldom seen in a Hong Kong sports movie. Shot in locations all over Taiwan and Asia, the film merges diverse cycling styles with the stunning terrain to evoke the raw excitement of a live sports program. Plot and character, however, are stiffly shoehorned into a plethora of setpieces, and for all the film’s upbeat, motivational feel, the three protags’ conflict between camaraderie and personal glory comes off as formulaic. Still, the film is dynamic and entertaining enough to pedal its way to great B.O. gains in Chinese-speaking markets.

The Cantonese title, “Por Fung” (which unintentionally translates as “breaking wind” in English), refers to the cyclist’s need to push aside the air in front of him. Domestiques help the sprinter by riding in front to create a slipstream. The best of the domestiques become “lead-outs” (“por fung sau” in Cantonese) who navigate the sprinter into the last meters of a race, then peel away before his or her final burst.

There are not many fiction features on bicycle racing that have become classics in the manner of so many boxing and baseball films; the most notable of the bunch are probably “Breaking Away” and animated pictures like France’s “The Triplets of Belleville” and Nippon’s “Nasu: Summer of Andalusia.” This makes “To the Fore” quite unconventional, as it focuses less on the sprinter than on the lead-outs, empathizing with their mental struggles, which emerge as a metaphor for any career: There’s a time to take the lead, and a time to step back for the greater good.

As the latest Hong Kong blockbusters confine themselves to tried-and-true surveillance/espionage/police-thriller templates, such as “Overheard 3,” “Helios,” or “Wild City,” Lam, one of the city’s most skilled and stylish action helmers (“The Beast Stalker,” “The Stool Pigeon”), deserves kudos for venturing into unfamiliar genres and executing them with the technical ingenuity and go-for-broke attitude for which H.K. cinema is renowned. Furthermore, the fact that bicycle racing is among the few sports that have garnered world championships for this little urban jungle imbues the subject with a sense of local pride and self-empowerment.

Admirable as this undertaking may be, the resulting film is short on Lam’s signature brooding mood and psychological complexity. The director’s affinity for tortured characters, evident even in flawed works like “Fire of Conscience” and “The Demon Within,” turns out to be of little use when it comes to such a wholesome and uplifting subject. On a narrative level, the strain for authenticity results in a deluge of technical knowledge, imparted through commentaries by sportscasters; rather than boosting the film’s immediacy, the droning verbiage has the effect of spoiling the visual thrills.

The yarn revolves around three young cyclists breaking into professional road racing as members of the Taiwanese Category III team Radiant. Ji-won (Choi Si-won, “Helios”) is a Korean sprinter of exceptional speed and control, clearly destined for greatness. Ming (Eddie Peng, “Rise of the Legend”) and Tian (Shawn Dou, “Wolf Totem”) are indispensable lead-outs: One has enormous stamina while the other boasts flinty endurance. Thanks to strategies tailored by their coach Li (Andrew Lin), they score a surprise victory against a stronger team, Phantom, in a race in Kaohsiung.

Each new race yields steeper roads and sharper bends as they traverse Meishan, Hehuan and Mount Wu. With kinetic stunts devised by Wong Wei-leung, the professional strategies are on intriguing display, while accidents are hair-raising enough to have elicited continual gasps from the audience at the screening caught.

Although Ming keeps going “a bloc” to catapult Ji-won to the finishing line, Tian, who wants to play it safe, disapproves of such improvisational showmanship. Their rift deepens when they compete for the affections of Shiyao (Wang Luodan), a once-promising track cyclist from China, now struggling to make a comeback after suffering from pulmonary embolism.

As the protags’ rivalry intensifies across Shanghai, Hong Kong, Busan, Inner Mongolia and Italy, the conception of each race offers strong visual stimulation, from dangerous relays in a “madison” to spectacular domino-effect crashes in a track race. Yet the tension gradually falls due to lukewarm drama centered around the detrimental influences of money, ambition and ego, as well as a trite love triangle. The grand finale, shot in the Tenggar Desert and fully capturing its vastness and scorching heat, at least delivers a stirring, satisfactory payoff.

The cast endured boot-camp training and sustained excruciating injuries in the process, and their exertions are more than evident in their physiques and body language. However, the strenuous training and demanding stunts may have distracted them from acting: Peng’s cocky go-getter is superficially charismatic, but he was much more powerfully deployed opposite Nick Cheung in Lam’s MMA-themed masterpiece “Unbeatable.”

Though they’ve already been paired once as lovers in “Rise of the Legend,” Peng and Wang still keep each other at arm’s length, the latter looking like a third wheel in her own romance. Choi maintains an understated composure befitting Ji-won’s confidence and integrity, but it’s Dou who engages the most; his history of being upstaged onscreen makes him an ideal choice to portray Tian’s career frustrations.

Pakie Chan’s lensing captures peloton formations and breakneck sprints from dynamic angles, while the aerial photography by Tsai Chia-ling highlights Taiwan’s lush, mountainous landscapes. Pacing by a trio of editors is on the mark, and the atmospheric sound mix amplifies the roar of the wheels. Henry Lai’s score makes cheesy if effective use of classical music; cycling celebs Mauro Gianetti and Rui da Costa aided the production.

Film Review: 'To the Fore'

Reviewed at UA Cinetimes, Hong Kong, Aug. 2, 2015. Running time: 125 MIN. (Original title: "Por fung")

Production: (Hong Kong-China) An Emperor Motion Pictures (in Hong Kong)/Emperor Motion Pictures Distribution (Beijing) (in China) release of an Emperor Film Prod. Co., Evergrande Pictures Co. presentation of a Film Fireworks production in association with Iqiyi Motion Pictures, Suning Universal, Huace Pictures. (International sales: Emperor Motion Pictures, Hong Kong.) Produced by Albert Lee,  Candy Leung, Sun Qian. Executive producers, Albert Yeung, Daniel Ke. Co-producers, Andy Lee,  Zheng Jun,  Karen Fu. Co-executive producers, Gong Yu,  Wu Zhaolan,  Zhao Yifang.

Crew: Directed by Dante Lam. Screenplay, Lam, Silver Lam Fung, based on the story by Lam. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Pakie Chan; editors, Chan Ki-hop, Poon Hung-yiu, Pang Ching-hei; music, Henry Lai; production designer/art director/set decorator, Eric Lam; costume designer, Stephanie Wong; sound (Dolby SRD 7.1)/ supervising sound editors/re-recording mixers, Phyllis Cheng, Ip Siu-hei; cycling technical advisor, Dominic Chau; World Tour pro-cycling technical  consultant, Mauro Gianetti;  aerial photography, Tsai Chia-ling; visual effects supervisor, Yee Kwok-keung; visual effects, Free-D Workshop; stunt director, Wong Wei-leung; associate producers, Emma Zhu,  Yang Xianghua,  Xu Bo,  Jon Chiew; second unit camera, Billy Ko; casting, Chen Chia-yi.

With: Eddie Peng, Shawn Dou, Choi Si-won, Wang Luodan, Andrew Lin, Carlos Chan, Ouyang Nana. (Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, English, Italian dialogue)

More Film

  • Speaker of the United States House

    Nancy Pelosi, Ava DuVernay Honored at VH1 Trailblazers Event

    Cher is feeling a little better about what’s happening in Washington, D.C. “When I see Trump spew his hate and tell his gazillion lies, I get pissed off and feel uneasy at the same time,” the Oscar winner and frequent Trump critic said on Wednesday while introducing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at “VH1 [...]

  • Most Memorable Oscar Speeches in Academy

    The Most Memorable Oscar Speeches in Academy History (Watch)

    No Academy Awards is complete without some emotional acceptance speeches on stage – and some political ones to boot. With just 90 seconds to make an impact, many actors have used the platform as a voice for political change, calling attention to hot-button issues like climate change and gender equality, while others have simply reveled [...]

  • Jussie Smollett

    Jussie Smollett Arrested, in Custody of Chicago Police

    Jussie Smollett has been arrested and faces criminal charges for allegedly filing a false police report and for disorderly conduct. Chicago police tweeted Thursday morning that the “Empire” actor was under arrest and in custody of detectives. Smollett claimed that he had been attacked by two men on Jan. 29 — he said they beat [...]

  • Billie Holiday (1915-1959, born Eleanora Fagan)

    Billie Holiday Documentary Draws Buyers as Concord Boards Project

    Concord, the successor to the Billie Holiday Estate, has boarded James Erskine’s documentary “Billie,” which tracks the iconic jazz singer’s life. Altitude Film Sales has sold the project to several territories. Also joining the project, now in post-production, is the Brazilian colorization artist Marina Amaral. Most of the filmed and still images that exist of [...]

  • My Extraordinary Summer With Tess review

    Film Review: 'My Extraordinary Summer With Tess'

    Winner of a special mention from the Berlinale Generation KPlus’ adult jury, the family-friendly, light drama “My Extraordinary Summer With Tess” is straightforward youth cinema with surprising emotional depth. Based on a prize-winning novel by Anna Woltz, a beloved Dutch writer of work for young readers, it explores family relationships and emphasizes the importance of [...]

  • UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report: Women, Minorities

    Hollywood Diversity Gains in TV but Falls Short in Movies

    Minorities and women have registered gains in several key areas of television but women continue to lag in movies, according to a report issued Thursday by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. “My basic take is that TV is improving more for minorities and women than film,” said Dr. Darnell [...]

  • Ghost Fleet review

    Film Review: 'Ghost Fleet'

    The revelatory documentary “Ghost Fleet” condemns the modern-day slave labor fueling the Thai fishing industry while focusing on the work of Bangkok-based advocacy organization Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN), a group dedicated to ending slavery at sea. Combining chilling testimony from formerly enslaved men, some wincingly arty recreations of their ordeals, and on-the-ground footage [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content