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To the Fore
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by Jay Seaver

"Great racing narrowly edges messy plotting."
4 stars

The characters in Dante Lam's latest, "To the Fore", often seem like they wouldn't know what to do if they couldn't be professional cyclists, and in a way, the film he made reflects that: When the characters are on their bikes, it's thrilling and electrifying; when they're not, they and the film seem to be struggling to find a reason to get back on the bikes.

The first cyclists we meet are Qiu Ming (Eddie Peng Yu-yen) and Chiu Tian (Shawn Dou), both auditioning for a spot on the Category 3 Radiant team in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Ming is a cocky fellow who challenges the team's sprinter, Jeong Ji-won (Choi Si-won), right during his audition; Tian is more reserved, with impressive stamina. Both quickly prove talented enough to become lead-outs; both also find themselves drawn to Huang Shiyao (Wang Loudan), a cyclist on the Virgo women's team attempting a comeback from a pulmonary embolism. With the eventual goal of being a sprinter on a Category 1 team, they race hard and look for opportunities.

To a certain extent, that fairly generic plot description is all there is; what rivalry develops between Ming, Tian, and Ji-won mostly remains friendly (although Ming certainly demonstrates an ability to tick other people off) and while plenty of things happen between races, it's the seemingly random buffeting of life which doesn't have a climax, resolution, and moral to aim for. Sometimes, that can feel like a waste of time - the Ming/Tian/Shiyao love triangle spends much of its time moving in seemingly arbitrary directions - and other things seem to dead-end. Triumphant reunions wind up transitory, as do the climaxes that highlight a theme.

But, man, when they're racing, does little of that seem to matter.

There are stretches when Lam puts a lot of racing into the movie, and he approaches those sequences like a fist-fight or shootout in an action film. Not necessarily in terms of guys knocking each other out (although that occasionally happens) but as a way to show characters' emotion and skills through difficult physical activity. As much as we get a sense of these guys from their other activities, seeing them race distills Ming's boldness, Tian's determination, Ji-won's level-headed control, and Shiyao's refusal to be sidelined. Their stories are right there.

And on top of that, Lam and cinematographer Chan Chor-keung shoot the heck out of these scenes, giving the editing crew great footage for either getting right into the peloton or showing the action from the air as needed. As a result, the audience has a sense of how all this high-speed motion works and how the terrain is a major factor. Lam and company don't bother to have any layman characters to whom all the cycling terms (like, say, "lead-out" and "peloton") must be explained, but do a great job of explaining the sport by how the cyclists race and plan, with announcers appearing on the soundtrack as needed without coming off as a gimmick. It's a movie that can create fans of the sport, and where it falls short of that, create excitement and understanding of what's so exciting for others.

The cast acquits themselves well during that action and, as the outtakes over the end credits show, wound up with a fair number of scrapes and bruises to prove it (even if their doubles probably took the brunt of the abuse). They turn in decent work in between - Eddie Peng is clearly the star, playing the fiery Ming in a way that grabs attention without quite drawing a sneer. The rivalry between Ming and Tian works so well because Shawn Dou plays the latter as a natural contrast but is able to add a layer of self-confidence as the opening act goes on that doesn't counter his steadfast nature. As with their characters, Peng gets noticed while Dou does a lot of the work that keeps things moving. Choi Si-won, on the other hand, seems to play best off Andrew Lin as the Radiant coach; history is alluded to there and it always seems genuine. Wang Loudan can summon an almost frightening will out of the mousy-seeming Shiyao as needed.

Playing out on courses around the Chinas and further abroad, the film also demonstrates the sport's combination of high-tech and reliance on simple pedal power. It could undeniably use a stronger plot, but as with the Hong Kong action films that are Lam's bread and butter, watching physical performance shot well can be its own reward, and this film is right on the line of making that enough.

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originally posted: 08/11/15 15:27:04
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  07-Aug-2015 (NR)



Directed by
  Dante Lam

Written by
  Dante Lam
  Fung Lam
  Silver Hau

  Eddie Peng
  Si Won Choi
  Shawn Dou
  Luodan Wang
  Carlos Chan

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