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Year of the Yao, The
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by Eugene Novikov

"Bring some more of your boys over."
3 stars

At seven feet, six inches, Yao Ming is not your average-looking Asian man; his inability to effectively communicate without an interpreter (at least in 2002, when this film is set) might make him an "enigma," of sorts. This does not, however, excuse "The Year of the Yao," which is ostensibly intended to give us a glimpse into the life and mindset of the NBA star during his rookie season, but instead proceeds to treat the man as if he were an alien from another planet. Instead of illuminating, the movie simply gawks; instead of detailing the culture clash inherent in his migration, it has its talking heads spout nonsense about Yao being a "bridge" -- a metaphor repeated at least a half-dozen times throughout the 88-minute flick.

Bizarrely, the film is centered around Yao's relationship with his thoroughly uninteresting translator -- an unassuming American in his late twenties who goes in terrified and emerges having a meaningful friendship with the basketballer; not surprising, since aside from Yao's parents, Colin is the only person with whom he can have a conversation. The problem isn't that directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern chose to spend time on the dynamic between the two men, it's that the relationship is a peripheral focus that nonetheless comes glaringly into play at random moments, displacing far more interesting elements like Yao's would-be rivalry with Charles Barkley, or his interactions with his American teammates.

The latter is by far the most interesting thing to be found here; the candid moments between Yao and the seasoned NBA stars are funny, fascinating, and touching sometimes. The movie is, of course, selectively edited, and for all I know Yao may have had nasty and adversarial relationships with some of the Houston Rockets' players and coaches when the cameras were turned off, but what we see is patience, encouragement, and considerably less condescension than the film itself shows. But even here I found myself wishing for more honesty and courage: Yao's first few ventures on the NBA courts were an admitted trainwreck, but was everyone around him a bottomless well of patience and goodwill? Surely there must have been doubters aside from the evil Charles Barkley; where are they?

Yao himself is treated not with the adulation due a superstar athlete, but with the sort of awed reverence with which you might greet a sudden visitor from a different galaxy. He is not merely an enigma, insists the film implicitly, but he is incomprehensible. He is not even a person: he is a symbol, an icon. Everyone else who speaks Chinese in the film gets subtitles; Yao is dubbed. We do not even get to hear the sound of his voice except in hushed tones beneath the voice of Colin the translator. The movie admires him, and wishes him well, but understand him? Apparently, it's not even worth the attempt.

This is also the kind of documentary where people talk to the camera about other people's feelings. Interviews literally begin with the phrase "I think [name]'s feelings..." Several times this happens. One wonders if this device is creative bankruptcy, a time-saving tactic, or something else entirely; surely, with the limitless possibilities of cinema at his disposal, a seasoned filmmaker can find a better way to evoke a character's emotions than have other characters lecture us about them.

The Year of the Yao
is glossy, proficient, and engaging, like something the NBA would produce. It sets a bizarrely tense tone, with a foreboding soundtrack by James L. Venable that utterly belies the content of the film. This, sadly, is more of a promo than anything else; it sells us on the concept of Yao Ming, but has next to nothing to say about him.

(Review reprinted from

link directly to this review at
originally posted: 03/06/07 00:51:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 San Francisco Asian-American Film Festival. For more in the 2005 San Francisco Asian-American Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/07/04 Wu Jiadong faeawrte 1 stars
9/18/04 John Dragon Great movie for NBA funs and Yao's funs 5 stars
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  15-Apr-2005 (PG)
  DVD: 14-Mar-2006



Directed by
  Adam Del Deo
  James D. Stern

Written by

  Yao Ming
  Colin Pine

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