A sport as quickfire as indoor volleyball deserves a nimbler workout than it gets in “Leap,” Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s lavish but curiously low-boil based-in-truth sports movie. Telling the decades-spanning tale of the Chinese Women’s Volleyball team and its star-player-turned-head-coach, Lang Ping, it’s essentially a rise-and-fall-and-rise-again story. But in presenting a sanitized vision of Chinese patriotism as pretty much the sole motivating force for any of its characters, despite a hefty runtime and some unimpeachably glossy craft, the film is a mis-hit spike, delivering far less penetration than its toned, muscular surface promises.
Ignoring or eliding whole decades of interim drama (Lang’s first stint as China’s coach is a particularly strange omission), the film is organized instead around three centerpiece matches: China versus Japan at the World Cup in 1981; China versus USA at the Beijing Olympics in 2008; and China versus Brazil at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Each takes place in a different era for Chinese volleyball, and therefore for China in general — the parallel between the success of the women’s volleyball squad and China’s post-Mao reentry onto the global stage is well established, but again, that just dangles the prospect of a more historically incisive picture than is delivered.
As strong-willed 18-year-old Lang Ping (played here by her daughter, Bai Lang) endures the borderline abusive but effective tough-love training of coach Yuan Weimin (Wu Gang), she forms a prickly bond with hitting partner Chen Zhonghe (Peng Yuchang from “An Elephant Sitting Still”). And though Chen is initially nonplussed at having to suppress his own sporting aspirations in service to the team, as the women start to win matches, he begins to take pride in being part of this squad. Their first major championship win is against Japan in 1981, a feat that establishes them, and especially dynamic outside hitter Lang, not only as the new shining stars of Chinese sport, but also as a potent symbol of China’s gathering strength post-Cultural Revolution.
The match itself, like all the volleyball sequences here, is impressively recreated. The pretty, sun-flared camerawork from Yu Jin-Ping and Zhao Xiaoshi employs slow-motion, symmetrical overheads and multiple angles to make the action look both cinematic and authentic (to this inexpert eye anyway), aided by the almost exclusive casting of experienced volleyball players in the team roles. And here, there’s a little outside context about 1980s Chinese society, as massive factory floors grind to a halt so that workers can gather around crackly black-and-white TV sets to watch their nation serve, slam and spike their way to victory over neighboring nemesis Japan.
This underdog story could have been the whole movie, but now we jump, rather jarringly, to 2008. Lang Ping (now played by Gong Li, who resembles the former version of Lang not at all) is living in California and is the coach for Team USA. Their defeat of Team China — on the home ground of the Beijing Olympics, no less — is a bittersweet moment for Lang, not least because China’s being coached by her old friend Chen (here played by Huang Bo). And so when the Chinese volleyball commission, realizing their international prestige is waning, offer her the head coach position instead, she takes it. The rest of the film details her unorthodox, and initially unsuccessful training methods and her bonding with her new players (played by members of the actual 2016 Olympic team) culminating in a spectacular last-gasp turnaround in Rio against Brazil.
Zhang Ji’s screenplay has a lot of ground to cover, and clearly a lot of agendas to serve, and even the constant montages and omnipresent music can’t smooth over the glaring gaps and obvious sidesteps. We never learn why this properly patriotic woman left her native country to begin with, so her return packs less of an emotive wallop than it should. And with Lang so taciturn (her actual coaching philosophy remains oddly mysterious), there’s not a lot for even as fine an actress as Gong to do, except stoically suffer some unknowable inner anguish beneath an unflattering wig (which, to be fair, she does exquisitely) and be steely in the face of the overwhelmingly male Chinese sporting establishment.
So by some distance, China selecting “Leap” as its Oscar entry is the most intriguing thing here. Chan’s film may be politically uncontroversial to the point of blandness, ginning up Chinese national pride but carefully not at any one foreign nation’s expense — the American team even beats the Chinese. But still, given current geopolitics, the hope that U.S. Academy voters won’t notice or won’t mind a finale in which the Stars and Stripes hangs several symbolic feet below the Five-Starred Red Flag of China, is an act of either brave idealism, or amusingly sly trolling. Quite which, like so much else here, is hard to know.