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.