The biographical sports drama has long been a fixture at the Academy Awards, from the 1942 weepie Pride of the Yankees to Margot Robbie’s darkly comedic portrayal of Olympic ice skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya (2017).
Now, one of Hong Kong’s most accomplished and successful filmmakers, Peter Chan (The Warlords, Dragon) has woven a sprawling dramatic account of the rise and fall — and subsequent resurrection — of the Chinese Olympic women’s volleyball teams from the early 1980s to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, with star player and later star coach, Lang Ping, as the golden thread.
The film, entitled Leap, has been selected as China’s nomination for the 2021 Academy Awards in the international feature category. From finding a cast that included ten out of the 12 Olympic Gold medalists of China’s 2016 Women’s Volleyball team appearing as themselves, to re-enacting multiple well-documented championships, Chan had numerous obstacles to overcome during the film’s production.
Here’s how and why Chan, as well as newcomer Lydia Bai Lang — who takes on the role of her famous mother at the start of her volleyball career — stayed on the court.
Leap spans four decades, from the beginning of the 1980s to the 2016 Olympics. In the late 1970s, China initiates reforms and begins to open up to the world and the Chinese nation “looks for ways for the world to see them.” Raising China’s sports profile on the international stage becomes a government priority.
It’s 1979, and in Gymnasium #2 at the Zhangzhou Volleyball Training Compound, the Chinese women’s volleyball squad is being pushed to the limit, physically and mentally. Beijing has sent a computer scientist to analyse the strengths and tactics of the players. There are rumors that the head coach of the US women’s volleyball team has begun using computer tech. But, the computer technology that China has at its disposal is “the size of a truck” and there are doubts that the government will allow it to be used for volleyball training. “Do you think my methods can be calculated by a computer?” roars the head coach, who then responds by raising the net by 15cm and pushing his team harder.
“The rise of the Chinese Women’s National Volleyball team started in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, coinciding with the Open Door Policy and the economic reform of China after decades of China being a closed country,” notes Chan. “So, it represents a rapid change in China. It represents the hopes in the ‘80s… I never lived through the ‘80s in China. I’m from Hong Kong, which is a very, very different place than mainland China. I’d never set foot in China until 1993. But everything I’d been hearing all my life from friends of mine in China was how China was filled with immense possibilities. So, I really wanted to capture the ‘80s in China.”
In the film, the head coach of the Chinese team emphasises that instinct and endless repetition are the keys to success. “Only those who persevere will be rewarded,” he posits. Potentially, the best player to rival the greatest hitters from the West is Lang Ping. She is over six foot tall and has developed a fearsome spike. Shortly before the World Cup in which China will take on Japan, Lang Ping replaces the team’s primary hitter. In towns and villages throughout the country, crowds huddle around black-and-white television sets in community halls to watch the match. When China wins, throngs of people spill out onto the streets in celebration, brandishing torches and waving Chinese flags. It’s a victory that would elevate national pride and would mark the beginning of an incredible run of success for Chinese women’s volleyball. Four more championship titles would follow, including gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. “It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about all of us,” the head coach proclaims. However, in spite of this mantra, one player rises to the forefront of the team to become a national hero: Lang Ping.
“I can’t make a Lang Ping biopic because Chinese women’s volleyball is too big for the audience of China to get into a story about one person,” Chan notes. “So, we had to struggle about [the film] being a Lang Ping biopic because Lang Ping is all over the history of Chinese women’s volleyball. And even [now]… she’s the head coach today and they’re going to the Tokyo Olympics in July. So, all this was extremely difficult to put into the context of two and a half hours.”
Lang Ping is the only person in the history of Chinese women’s volleyball to have earned Olympic gold as both a player and as a head coach. She began coaching in the United States but later returned to China at a time when the sport was experiencing a dramatic slump. She led the national women’s volleyball team to greater success in the early 2000s and under her guidance and tutelage, the team returned to even greater heights at the 2016 Rio Olympics. So, another challenge for the director was finding actors who could take on the iconic role of Lang Ping as a young player nicknamed “The Iron Hammer” and then later as a legendary coach.
For the role of the more mature Lang Ping as coach and mentor, Chan eventually cast star of Chinese cinema Gong Li, perhaps best known for her roles in the internationally acclaimed films Red Sorghum (1988), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) and Farewell My Concubine (1993). And for the part of the young Lang Ping as Olympic player, focus fell on Lang Ping’s real-life daughter, Lydia Bai Lang. A graduate from Stanford University, Bai was working at an investment bank in the United States when she was approached about possibly taking on the role. As one of 12 members of the US Women’s Junior National Team, she had substantial volleyball experience. However, she had no background in acting.
Peter Chan decided to cast Bai “because there was nobody else…that actually could get the essence of Lang Ping, her mother, who is a national hero in China to the extent that you would not believe,” says Chan. “More than probably any movie star. It’s like playing Bruce Lee. So, no matter who you cast, the audience is not going to buy it. We thought casting her daughter was the only option.”
Because Bai is American and speaks Chinese with an accent, there were reservations. “However, she really did capture the essence of her mother with a lot of conviction. I also think she has something to prove to her mother… Casting Lydia was probably one of the biggest rolls of the dice in my career. She had no acting experience and she was a little bit overweight for the character she was supposed to play because her mother was really lanky. And she was a little bit older than her mother was,” Chan recalls.
Bai lost 30 pounds for the role and committed to the part. “I had no idea how much I would learn from it,” Bai says. “I think what I love the most about playing my mum when she was younger was that I thought she was so brave and it was just so fun playing her because I could be brave too.” Bai had known about her mother’s sporting achievements, but mother and daughter had “never actually talked about it” before filming. “I’d never actually seen her play and so that was just the beginning of this entire journey.”
On set, Bai developed a renewed appreciation for the difficult circumstances and tough training that her mother had endured as a young player. One day, Bai inspected the medical props, indicative of what emergency care had been available to Chinese athletes of her mother’s generation. “It was literally just like some cotton swabs and metal tweezers. I immediately was just like: ‘Oh my gosh. This is insane!’” Recalling her time playing at Stanford University, Bai adds: “Now we have access to so much. And that stark contrast has really showed me that at the time, the girls were just literally playing with their lives.”
Bai points out that it was “very serendipitous” that she played the same position in the sport that her mother had played as an Olympic athlete, as it helped in her approach to the scenes on court. “I watched a lot of my mum’s previous games. That was so much fun,” she recollects. “I also looked at how she interacted with her teammates in between points and how she also celebrated. I remember when we were first filming some of the volleyball scenes, our producer said: ‘Lydia, you celebrate too much like an American. You are smiling way too much. You are just way excited! Tone it down.’ So, that put me back in the frame of mind that: ‘Yes, okay, I need to go back to what I’d watched and internalise a little bit more how I was feeling.’”
Peter Chan was grateful to have a lead actor who was not only an athlete but who also had insight into the character of Lang Ping. “There was a scene where I thought she should cry,” he recalls. “[But] then she told me: ‘My mother would not cry in the stadium. She would actually walk out.’” For Chan, such input about certain scenes and reactions were a director’s gift.
Also challenging for Chan was recreating the volleyball action from iconic championships and Olympic events. “It’s not a fictional story. It’s a biopic, not of just one person but of the whole team,” Chan emphasises. “This is the first film where I worked with non-professional actors because they all needed to be athletes. And I did naively think that I could cast tall actresses or even models who are usually taller at 5’10″ or 5’11″ to pose as someone that is 6’1″ and 6’2″ to play volleyball players. I cast about 12 actresses to play these volleyball players in the beginning for the [scenes from the] ‘80s. They were in training for two months. It was completely impossible because they were too thin, and they don’t have the physique of a volleyball player. All their moves were impossible to film in such a short time. So, I ended up casting all real athletes.”
For example, Chan decided to cast members of the Tianjin Bohai Bank women’s volleyball team and college volleyball players to portray the Chinese women’s national volleyball team from the ‘80s. “They’re all people that wanted to be on the national team. So, they all came with conviction. As a director, I actually learned a lot in this film. And especially in the second half when the real national team players were [brought] in.”
For the scenes that capture the 2016 Rio Olympics, most all the volleyball athletes were from China’s national women’s team that had participated in the last Olympic Games, cast as themselves.
“What I’ve gotten the most out of this film is that I don’t tell the athletes/the actors what to do. They tell me what their lives were like and then they come up with their own dialogue,” Chan points out. “They would change all my dialogue every day on set because they said: ‘This is how we speak.’ And to me it’s almost like I was a documentary filmmaker to a certain extent. And that was something that I’ve never ever experienced before in my almost 30-year career. Every single actress and athlete knows the sport much better than I do. So, to a certain extent, I was like the observer. I was just learning as a student.”
Being an accomplished volleyball player, Bai had assumed that the sport action sequences would be a piece of cake. “But the volleyball scenes were definitely not easy because for every shot I had to put a hundred percent of my effort in. I couldn’t let my mum down. I knew that if I held back a little bit she could immediately tell when watching the movie,” Bai says, smiling. “Other than that, it was extremely natural. It just took me back to being a player again and I remember the last day, when we finished filming the volleyball scenes, I cried because I was saying goodbye to volleyball again and also saying goodbye to how brave my mum was playing.”
Chan was also aware of the complexities of making a film about the successes and failures of Chinese sport set in a time when the country was undergoing many fundamental socio-political changes. “As a filmmaker, I have to navigate the waters of trying to tell the truth of what really happened versus dealing with the politics of China – and, obviously, a certain amount of censorship. But we’ve been very supported by the film industry and we got through all the hurdles.
“I was trying to portray [everything] in the movie as honestly as I could,” Chan continues. “And, yes, there were controversies in China and on the internet too about the first half being much more about collectivism and the second half about why you play volleyball. And people might not just play volleyball for the country. They’re playing volleyball for themselves – which is something that is very hard to be proclaimed in China today.”
Chan also notes that the first half of the film is “more about how China wanted to be re-engaged with the world and how China wanted to be seen by the world.” He emphasises that at the beginning of the country’s Open Door Policy, volleyball became a means of showing the world what China was capable of achieving. “So, it’s easier for Chinese kids of that generation to have a very patriotic and collective mentality because that was what China was all about. But it’s harder for people or athletes that are born in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s to have the same sensibility or the same values.”