9-ManReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/08/14 10:32:51
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2014: "9-Man" was the second film at the festival built around Chinese-American themes and it turns out to be an excellent pairing with "The Search for General Tso": Where "Tso" mainly concerned itself with history and adaptation, this movie spends most of its time in the present day, with the residents of the country's various Chinatowns using sports to help maintain a distinct cultural identity. That may sound dry, but it's also a pretty entertaining sports movie on its own.The game of 9-man is basically volleyball with a few important changes, the most obvious being that there are nine to a side rather than two or six, necessitating an oversized court. Those players also stay in the same positions rather than rotating, allowing for specialization, get an extra touch when the ball hits the net, and can reach over the net to spoke. The annual tournament rotates between cities every Labor Day weekend, and a team's roster must include at least six players of entirely Chinese descent, with each of the rest at least half-Asian.
That last stipulation will raise some eyebrows, especially when combined with an almost offhand mention that the game is men-only. I can joke about how scenes involving that restriction elicited a strange feeling that I as a white male was just not familiar with, gosh darn it, but director Ursula Liang does a very nice job of making it a nifty subtext throughout the film. The audience can kind of laugh at a group of pro beach volleyballers getting told they can't play but also feel a bit uncomfortable about teams demanding other players show their birth certificates. Interview segments, especially with some of the guys who played a generation or two (out three) ago, make it an interesting gray area; they talk about seldom having any athletic heroes or masculine role models of their own and how the local 9-man team filled a void and still provides a sense of community that could get washed away if it were open to everyone, but they never seem to look comfortable with being exclusionary, especially when it's their mixed-race friends getting the short end of the stick. It's an unusually nuanced take on a subject that can often get heated.
That's just one of the topics that Liang's interviewees discuss, though, and she lined up a very entertaining and informative cross-section. There are coaches, like Booby Guen of the Boston Knights, a dentist who, like most involved, is a volunteer. There are start players like Patrick "2E" Chin of the Washington CYA and Jeff Chung of the Toronto Connex, the later a major talent in "regular" volleyball who regularly prioritizes the 9-man tournament over the college and national teams he has played on. There are old-timers like James Wing & Henry Oi, and community leaders like Reggie Wong, and many more. It's a testament to Liang and editor Michelle Chang that the movie seldom feels too crowded; it's a lot of people with somewhat similar stories, but the filmmakers find ways of giving everyone plenty of time during the lead-up to the 2010 tournament without feeling like they are repeating themselves very much.
Once the movie reaches Labor Day weekend and the tournament, things change a bit. Liang and her collaborators had spent much of the movie up until then talking about history and the sport's place in the community, so the shift to 9-Man being more about a competition is kind of jarring and handled kind of awkwardly at one point (a fight during the pre-tournament banquet whose causes and participants are not exactly spelled out). Still, things pick up very quickly for a couple of reasons: First, she can introduce the reigning champions, the San Francisco Westcoast, a regional team of ringers including the gigantic Kevin Wang that is sure to present a challenge to even the Toronto Connex, who had been portrayed as an overdog dynasty; and second, they shoot it as much like a major network's coverage of a professional championship as they can, with multiple cameras and a good handle on when to get in close enough that thy he audience can experience the game from the court and when to step back and watch plays develop.It at least looks like enough fun that I suspect some folks will certainly try and round up seventeen friends to give the game a try, no matter what their ethnicity. It will probably stay in its communities for the most part, though, and if nothing else, this film certainly let's the audience know what the game means in those areas where it's played.
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