LEE CHONG WEI
Director : Teng Bee
Cast : Tosh Chan, Jake Eng, Mark Lee, Yeo Yann Yann, Ashley Hua, Rosyam Nor, Freddie Wong, Uriah See, Agnes Lim
Genre : Sports, drama
Run Time : 2h 5m
Opens : 15 March 2018
Rating : PG
Celebrated Malaysian badminton player and one-time world #1 Lee Chong Wei gets his story told on the big screen in this biopic.
It is 1992, and young Lee Chong Wei (Jake Eng) watches with rapt attention as Malaysian badminton players Razif and Jalani Sidek play in the Olympic semi-finals. Chong Wei hails from the town of Bukit Mertajam in North Malaysia. Coming from a poor family, he’s unable to afford his own racquet. Chong Wei’s mother Kim Chooi encourages Chong Wei’s desire to play badminton, while his father Ah Chai (Mark Lee) is initially adamant against it, insisting that his son focus on his studies.
Chong Wei trains under local coach Teh Peng Huat (Freddie Wong), eventually becoming a well-known badminton player in Bukit Mertajam. He is later enrolled in the Badminton Academy of Malaysia, under the tutelage of national team coach Misbun Sidek (Rosyam Nor). Pushing himself to his limits, Chong Wei overcomes various setbacks and climbs the ranks. In the meantime, he develops affections for Wong Mew Choo (Ashley Hua), a fellow student at the academy. In the 2004 Thomas Cup, Chong Wei first faces off against China’s Lin Dan, beginning what will be one of the fiercest rivalries in badminton history.
The film is based on Chong Wei’s autobiography Dare to be a Champion. Lee Chong Wei follows established sports movie formula almost to the letter: our hero emerges from humble beginnings, is an underdog who becomes a champion through talent and determination, faces obstacles, and trains under a wise mentor or two. For the most part, director Teng Bee makes this formula work.
Lee Chong Wei is an unapologetically patriotic Malaysian film, but its subject is more than deserving of hometown hero status. The film brims with earnestness and is determined to tell a moving, personal story. The result is slick and the production values are high – barring one scene set in London which was obviously shot in Malaysia. The badminton sequences are shot and edited such that we believe the actors really are that good, and there’s no shortage of rousing moments.
While the plot beats might be familiar to anyone who’s watched a couple of sports movies, the movie possesses an authenticity which gives it a novelty factor when compared with the Hollywood sports dramas we’re accustomed to. The unique linguistic landscape of Malaysia is reflected accurately via dialogue in Bahasa Melayu, the Chinese dialects of Hokkien and Mandarin, and English. This seems like a film that will travel well, bolstered by its combination of specificity to Malaysia and the universal appeal of a true underdog tale.
Chong Wei is portrayed by newcomers Jake Eng as a boy and Tosh Chan as a young adult. Eng has a winsome quality without coming off as overly precocious or twee, while Chan’s withdrawn awkwardness enhances Chong Wei’s underdog quality. Both actors display remarkable commitment to the physicality, and more than hold their own in the badminton scenes. There are moments when Chan’s lack of acting experience comes through and he’s not quite able to fully shoulder the dramatic heft, but both actors’ portrayals of Chong Wei coalesce into a commendable whole.
The film’s supporting players are praiseworthy. Yeo Yann Yann’s portrayal of a nurturing mother coping with trying circumstances is credible, while Mark Lee gets to show off range that is rarely demanded of him in his mostly broad comedic roles.
Rosyam Nor delivers a layered, sensitive performance as Misbun. He’s tough on Chong Wei, but is also personally invested in his pupil’s journey. Freddie Wong is an amiable presence as Teh Peng Huat, who functions as a source of comfort and assurance to Chong Wei. Even as he gains success and recognition, Chong Wei’s formative years in Bukit Mertajam remain a key part of him, and his first coach represents that.
Uriah See has fun sneering his way through the part of Yang Kun Chen, Chong Wei’s haughty rival at the academy. This character appears to be fictional, or at least a composite. It veers on being cartoony, but Kun Chen does go through a progression of sorts.
Ashley Hua is sweet but remains firmly in the background as the designated love interest. The parts of the film depicting Chong Wei and Mew Choo’s romance are the cheesiest but still have their charm.
As is to be expected of films like this, Lee Chong Wei could stand to be subtler. The musical score too obviously announces what the audience is supposed to feel. The scenes of the Badminton academy board members deliberating Chong Wei’s future also feel too much like the Jedi Council deciding whether Anakin Skywalker is too old to begin his training.
While Lee Chong Wei is not without its flaws and is largely predictable, the movie represents a significant achievement for the Malaysian film industry. It’s an inspiring crowd-pleaser that draws its hero with more nuance than one might expect, even as it is a paean towards him.
The film’s chest-thumping and flag waving is somewhat cheesy, but also endearing, because unlike the typical jingoism scene in blockbuster movies, it’s not presented in a military context. Beyond the technically accomplished filmmaking, there’s a heartfelt warmth that gives Lee Chong Wei its winning edge.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars