Two of my passions come together in a film I have been somewhat looking forward to for quite some time. Asian Cinema is a bit of an obvious confession, but I am also a big follower of Road Cycling. Obviously it is a good time to be a British fan of the sport in recent years, but the lack of Asian riders breaking through into the big leagues is something that I have pondered for a while. Their work ethic and physique should make them perfect, but it really has been a handful that have even tried. Whist the real answer is probably to do with cultural differences, a doping culture more rife than even in Europe (allegedly) and the lure of big money in the Japanese Keirin circuit, “To the Fore” follows the adventures of 4 Asian cyclists as they attempt to get to the top of the sport. To make the excitement even greater, Dante Lam is behind the camera and the ever charming Eddie Peng is one of our leads – basically is sounds like a shoo-in! Let’s see!
Taiwan’s Team Radiant hires two new members to support star Korean sprinter Jeong Ji-Won (Choi Si-won) – the hot headed Ming (Eddie Peng) and the more measured Tian (Shawn Dou). Both bring something to the team, and despite their personality differences, start to make successful wave in local competitions. Ming and Tian also find time to compete for the affections of Huang Shiyao (Wang Luodan), a female Mainland cyclist trying to recover from a career-threatening pulmonary embolism. Clearly both men have their merits, but the playful charm of Ming wins the day. However, just as things really get going for Team Radiant, their sponsor pulls out, breaking up the team. They all go on to better things, heading up other teams in a higher division. Ji-won and Ming continue a healthy and still-respectful rivalry, whilst Tian simply isn’t quite good enough as a sprinter. Things go off the rails when Ji-won’s manager pays a team-mate of Ming’s to affect the outcome of the championship deciding race. Ming’s temper gets the better of him and he gets banned from racing for 9 months, eventually leading him splitting up with Huang. Tian slides into the darker side of the sport, firstly by getting involved in doping, and when caught, ends up in some low level Keirin cycling in Korea. Meanwhile, Huang’s comeback doesn’t go as planned, but opportunity knocks for a reconciliation with Ming. Eventually the three men are given a chance for some kind of redemption with a final race in the unforgiving Tengger Desert.
So how was it? I am going with somewhat mixed.
Dante Lam manages to do a lot of things very well indeed. He manages to mostly get Road Cycling right. This does mean there is an awful lot of information dumping in some of the early scenes (but that’s why we have commentators on the races), and it does exist in a slightly parallel universe where every race is won by Sprinters (in the real world, it’s more like 30% of races suit sprinters and sprint trains, but I guess that wouldn’t make for as interesting a tale). However, putting the actors and extras through a gruelling training program adds authenticity to the final product, and a lot of the race scenes are really well done. One suspects that Taiwanese cycle manufacture Merida (who co-sponsor Italian WorldTour team Lampre-Merida) where heavily involved, not just because of their nationality, but with the presence of (at the time anyway) World Champion Rui Costa, one of their riders. Although Costa is more an all-round cyclist than a sprinter, so Ming’s hero-worship of the rider is somewhat unlikely.
So anyway, it’s fairly accurate, and you accept a number of shortcuts and dramatic liberties to be taken. This isn’t a documentary, it’s a sports film! Bizarrely, it’s the more human side that lets the film down. The film struggles giving all it’s four leads decent time. Choi’s character is the least developed – he basically seems a genuinely nice bloke, who just gets a little upset when those around him cheat on his behalf. Wang does get the most complete story arc, though the love triangle the film set’s up is never that convincing, and to be honest she doesn’t have an awful lot of chemistry with Peng. She is the actor who looks least comfortable on the bike, which doesn’t help. On the other hand she does get the chance to grow and emote a little more than the others, and her eventual career resolution is a pretty smart nod to Rebecca Romaro (albeit in reverse).
Shawn Dou probably gets the hardest role. The guy is a perennial worker, good but not Star Material. Which ironically, in cycling, is an excellent attribute. Because cycling is a team sport. And his descent into the darker side of the sport simply doesn’t quite ring true on any level. And even if you accept that from a storytelling point of view, the fact he was using a non-banned substance means he wouldn’t have been thrown out of the sport anyway. Nit-picking I know. Dou isn’t helped by the dot-to-dot plotting – one minute he is Bungee-jumping with Huang to release their pent-up frustrations, the next he is injecting something in the trailer. One feels that moment might be better served much later in the film.
Luckily Peng brings his charm and effervescence to a character that would be easy to dislike. Charming and brash, he also brings a temper to the party, and one does feel that he learns his lessons in both his personal and professional life. If only the other three characters were given as much room to grow. His character even survives one of the biggest dick-moves I have ever seen, when he takes Huang on a date to meet his alcoholic mother, which ends up exactly as awkward as it sounds.. especially on a date so early in their relationship. Actually, it would be a dick-move if they had been married 20 years.
Anyway, I am digressing. Fundamentally, when the film is ‘off bike’, it struggles. The four leads are too much for the script, which leads to the sense of just dropping in on events, and never really going on an emotional journey with them. Peng manages to come out of this best, probably because in reality he is the star, gets most of the screen time, and actually has something to work with.
I could go on and have a little go at the disappointing nature of the final race, which doesn’t hold up as well on a technical level, nor does it actually make a lot of sense in cycling terms (after such a big crash, the race would have been neutralised, allowing the team cars and medical vehicles to catch up with the remaining riders). But I won’t as I don’t want this to be a review of nitpicks.
“To the Fore” is probably the second best non-documentary cycling movie I have seen. It doesn’t come close to “The Flying Scotsman” in story terms, but what it achieves visually is truly excellent. It is a shame the narrative and storytelling of events off the bike are simply not as up to standard, but fortunately Eddie Peng continues to show he is one of the brightest and most charismatic young Asian actors working today. I am going to give it a recommended, I am maybe too close to the subject matter, but it is a sports movie that actually does the sport itself proud.