The Year of the Yao directed by Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern. 88 minutes. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (May 6). For venues and times, see Movies, page 92. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Is biggest better? The NBA thinks so.
Since the freakishly tall Yao Ming came to the league, it's been relentlessly promoting 2002's number-one draft pick as the biggest of the big. Here's a guy who stands 7-foot-6 and represents the best chance the NBA has ever had to reach the biggest audience there is: China, country of untapped billions.
With the enthusiasm of a cheerleader on crack, the new documentary The Year Of The Yao, partly produced by the NBA, uses Yao as the ultimate symbol, a giant-sized boy man capable of uniting East and West in a global frenzy of sports-loving leisure lifestyles. Even Bill Clinton gets into the act, blithely assuring us that, yes, Yao is the best hope for world peace and prosperity since Tricky Dick scaled the Great Wall.
But, seen another way, young Yao stands for everything that's gone wrong since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the "liberalization" of China. If he symbolizes anything, it's the growing gap between rapidly spreading American-style corporate pop culture and values like democracy and basic human rights.
No longer content to sell stuff to the bloated couch potatoes of middle America, every lifestyle corporation from Starbucks to Disney to the NBA has been rushing to grab a bit of the action suddenly available in newly "liberated" countries like Uzbekistan, Iraq and, biggest prize of them all, China.
Having thoroughly colonized the sports channels of North America and preached the dream of pro basketball success in ghettos from St. Jamestown to Compton, profits have maxed out. So what's the best way to keep growing richer? Enter the dragon.
For the NBA and other U.S. companies that have latched onto him, Yao's their ambassador, the man with the key to the treasures of China. By making him into the Orient's first-ever genuine sports superstar, they figure they'll convert billions to dreams of stardom and to rampant, pointless consumer culture -- stardom's Siamese twin.
But Yao is great for China's regime, too. He's a perfect symbol of striving, success and doing what you're told -- the American dream Chinese-style. The Chinese government is out to prove that dictatorship and brutal restrictions on free speech can go hand in hand with American-style consumer comfort and celebrity. Yes, you can have your capitalist cake and your kangaroo courts and mass executions, too. Who could have foreseen the day when America's business elite and China's political rulers would be marching down the main streets of Shanghai and Sacramento with a 7-foot-6 Chinese basketball superstar on their shoulders?
Twenty-two-year-old Yao is not only bizarrely tall and pretty good with his hands, but he's also smart enough to keep his mouth shut. He serves everyone's purpose. How much does he make? Whatever it is, they aren't paying him enough.
The Year Of The Yao doesn't use words like salary, let alone regime, repression, democracy or capitalism. This is a feel-good story about a tall Chinese boy who serves his country and wins the hearts of Americans in the process.
So is biggest better? Well, you know the old saying: The bigger they come, the harder they fall.
The Year of the Yao (Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern) Rating: NN
Here's a feel-good documentary that hammers away at the theme of the young Chinese pro basketball player Yao Ming uniting America and China.
As we follow him through his first year in the NBA, various ambassadors, ex-presidents and pundits praise him for fostering world peace by playing basketball and shooting commercials.
Apart from the dubious idea that Yao Ming is a bridge between two countries, the biggest problem with this movie is its star. He isn't much of an interview subject. A few words about the pressure of representing his country; a polite comment about how honoured he is to be playing with the best in the world.
Desperate filmmakers fall back on his young American translator. This mundane law school dropout ruminates at length on the pressures Yao is facing and the great friendship the two men have forged. Who is this guy again?
A few nice scenes like the one showing Yao celebrating his first Thanksgiving on the road with his Houston Rockets teammates can't save this stilted, deluded documentary.