Peter Chan’s Leap is China’s submission for the 93rd Academy Awards’ “Best International Feature Film” category, a shocking pick considering the country’s The Eight Hundred is 2020’s highest-grossing film worldwide. Both deal with rousing patriotism, but the biographical sports drama is evidently viewed as more accessible. Ironically, China ignores a record-setting movie in favor of one empowered by Olympic history and stats. Although Leap nails historical reenactments, its paradoxical nature blurs true intent. A dense second act only exacerbates the feeling of a narrative going to great lengths to please all parties, consequently silencing its authorial voice.
To capture a national saga across three decades, Chan takes no shortcuts in retracing China’s National Women’s Volleyball Team’s losses and triumphs. Having just abandoned its former non-sporting policy, the People’s Republic of China entered the 1980s with trepidation. All too aware of spectator scrutiny after centuries of isolationism, the POR surmised there was no better stage to prove their contemporary might than at the Olympic Games. That meant athletes would train harder than soldiers. Through a series of brutal repetition, months at a time separated from family, and the promise of social disgrace if they lost the Gold medal, these women were stripped of soul to become mortal machinery.
One player distinguishes herself from the rest, alternate Lang Ping, who would eventually become the United States’ MVP-winning coach before being hired as China’s head coach in 2013. The younger version is played by the real-life Ping’s daughter, Bai Lang, a stunning actress who channels her mother’s resilience, motivational gusto, sharp intellect, and ultimate love of volleyball. Getting the team through sports administrator Yuan Weimin’s (Wu Gang) barbaric preparation methods is hitter trainer Chen Zhonge (Peng Yuchang). He forms a tight kinship with Ping, the pair pushing each other to aim further than their doubters deemed possible. To jump higher in life, you need to first believe in your career elasticity.
Because of Ping’s turnaround ability on the court, she led her team to victory in the early 80s, becoming one of the most successful athletes across all sporting fields. What Leap fails to track is how gender inequality at home resulted in Ping’s transition to coaching an American team, or how these athletes depicted in the 80s, late 2000s, and early 2010s negotiated their gender identity on and off the court. This avoidance is likely due to having a male screenwriter, Zhang Ji, attached to a story that is directly about women overcoming everyday stigma and obstacles. Their femininity is treated as irrelevant as if their comradery spirit isn’t tied to womanhood, inspired by a coach who became a staple of female dominance in her arena.
The sports drama does an incredible job recreating legendary volleyball matches, so attuned to detail that the second half is filled with the real-life players portraying cinematic versions of themselves. Dynamic editing matches the intense game volley for volley, close-ups of the team further emphasizing their determination for both themselves and China’s reputation. To avoid confusing audiences on the issue of whether Leap is a narrative feature or documentary — the story is basically a slew of match reenactments with a scattering of sentimental pep talks — the studio makes sure to cast one of China’s greatest thespians. Gong Li plays the older version of the venerable athlete and coach, providing fans with human insight into the laser-focused woman who rarely experienced loss when in charge.
Li disappears into this iconic role, her pensive eyes expressing internal agony over China’s decrepit state of sports morale. Very much a progressive, Ping is concerned with rebuilding the national team to better reflect the rest of the world. That means selecting players who aren’t just bringing honor to their respective families, but more so to fulfill personal achievement in themselves. Ping’s emotional pre-game speeches wisely impart that what makes a sports champion isn’t how hard she trains, but how much she loves the game. No matter how old she gets, Ping’s love of volleyball courses through her veins. She pushes her team to win with heart, not pressure.
It’s just too bad that Leap doesn’t have faith in its empowering story. The need to stuff its running time with long-winded matches and contradictory messaging — national pride versus individual happiness — makes it a sports drama that goes into overtime at the exhaustion of its spectatorship. Sometimes focusing too much on recreating the detail of history can wind up nullifying its power to resonate.