A glorious retreat to victory
By Wen Shin KuoStaying incredibly faithful to the real-life story of the Jingmei Girls High School (景美女中) tug-of-war team's arduous journey to success, “Step Back to Glory” (志氣) is Taiwan's own inspirational sports movie.
February 8, 2013, 5:11 pm TWN
For this film, you walk into the cinema already half-familiar with the generic storyline and correctly expect to see the “no-pain no-gain” philosophy preaching encouragement and fierce determination throughout the movie.
However, for all its simplicity, lack of special effects and predictable plot, there's something about the rawness and sincerity in its faithful depiction that differentiates this movie from all the rest in the inspirational-sport-movie category. Directed by first-time director Zhang Bo-rui (張柏瑞), the film closes the distance between the viewer and the characters, adding more substance to the movie and allowing it to resonate strongly with the audiences.
Members of the film's production team share many interesting things in common, one of which is a lot of firsts. Directing for the first time is Zhang, with Guo Shu-yao (郭書瑤) attempting her first lead actress role, as well as various first-time actresses from the Jingmei tug-of-war team playing themselves.
This unique dynamic gives the film a natural glow. The humor is light and sweet; the interactions between the characters are natural; the hardships, injuries and determination is real; and the heartbreak is palpable.
Sometimes the sequences do hinge on one too many sentimental clichés, emotionally manipulative music and slow-motion binging — interrupted with unoriginal flashbacks — that one starts to feel like you're watching a string of segmented tear-collecting vignettes, where the product is just about to materialize on the screen with corny fade-in, fade-out transitions.
However, the impressive originality and great performances of the many first-time actresses more than make up for all of the above. In scenes where the young girls have to face hardship, disappointment, or are struggling through family heartbreak, the waterworks are just as effortlessly opened.
The emotions are raw and elemental, piercing you straight through the heart. Perhaps the reason why many viewers (including myself) break down and cry throughout the movie is in the realness of it all — the knowledge that the extraordinary story being told is true, and not just empty chants and slogans of aspiration.
“Step Back to Glory” is a sunshine-in-the-rain story of laughter and tears. The girls are just as lovable and beautiful as they are strong. Rather than focus on one individual leader who heroically leads a team to victory, Zhang portrays tug-of-war as the powerful example of teamwork that it is. Zhang also makes an effort to offer another perspective — delicately guiding the audience to acknowledge the sacrifices these teenagers have to make.
He cleverly casts a heartbreaking contrast between the pretty, girly, smart high school classmates with the bulky, callused, strong athletes, who we forget are young, sweet-16 girls who like to feel pretty and loved too. A sweet, subtle hint of innocent, platonic romance is also sprinkled into the movie in the right proportions, creating just the right rounded portrayal of these girls.
To place this movie on the spectrum of inspirational movies of encouragement, it's not as breathtakingly genius as its big-budget Hollywood counterparts, but it's definitely worth the watch, and it sure does more than deserve applause and recognition for being an impressive film by Taiwanese standards. ■
'Step Back to Glory' (志氣) ► Directed by Zhang Bo-rui / With Guo Shu-yao, Zhuang Kai-xun and Pink Yang / Drama, Sport / 2012 / Taiwan / Chinese with English Subtitles / 115 min. / ★★★★☆ / Now Showing