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To the Fore

Eddie Peng and Shawn Dou in To the Fore.


Year: 2015  
Director: Dante Lam Chiu-Yin
  Producer: Candy Leung, Albert Lee, Sun Qian
  Writer: Dante Lam Chiu-Yin, Lam Fung, Silver

Eddie Peng Yu-Yan, Choi Si-Won, Shawn Dou, Wang Luodan, Andrew Lin Hoi, Carlos Chan Ka-Lok, Nana Ouyang, Mandy Lieu, Carl Ng Ka-Lung, Stephen Au Kam-Tong, Rui Costa

The Skinny: Watchable Top Gun-on-bicycles drama that entertains in the early going before wearing thin. The film adds too many subplots and complications to properly develop them, and the story ultimately doesn’t feel credible. However, the actors are good for the most part, and there’s plenty of cycling action. OK as a summer commercial film but disappointing as a follow-up to Dante Lam’s similarly sports-themed Unbeatable.
by Kozo:

Dante Lam’s To the Fore starts in entertaining fashion, and its handsome stars and frequent cycling scenes make it initially compelling. However, that feeling doesn’t last and further reflection only reveals this Top Gun-on-a-Schwinn sports melodrama to be exceptionally thin. Eddie Peng stars as Ming, the hot-tempered, reckless Maverick of the Taiwan cycling world, who impresses his new Team Radiant cyclemates with his bursts of pedaling power. Sadly, Team Radiant already has a sprinter (the star cyclist responsible for carrying the team across the finish line) but Ming is drafted to be one of the team’s lead-out men (cyclists who create a slipstream for the sprinter prior to the race’s final leg) alongside another new recruit, Tian (Shawn Dou), whose doe-eyed innocence is in direct contrast to Ming’s cocksure charm. The Iceman of this lot is Jeong Ji-Won (Choi Siwon), Team Radiant’s sprinter who excels while still maintaining his integrity and general all-around awesomeness. Despite their differences, the three share mutual respect and homoerotic camaraderie as they strive to make their mark on the cycling world.

Alas, the trio doesn’t stay together; Team Radiant disbands when it loses its sponsors, and the coach (Andrew Lin) sends each of his athletes on to other, greater gigs. All three of the men become sprinters for their own teams, but while Ji-Won and Ming become rivals, Tian struggles at the middle of the pack. As pressure mounts for each man to take the top spot – or for Tian to simply become a competent challenger – their decisions carry greater risk and more severe consequences. There’s also a romantic subplot; both Ming and Tian are attracted to female cyclist Huang Shiyao (Wang Luodan), who’s attempting a comeback after suffering a pulmonary embolism. In this early going, To the Fore is fairly plotless, with infrequent exposition and plenty of cycling action and youth romance tropes. Dante Lam’s storytelling works well out of the gate; the characters are built more through interaction and incidental dialogue than monologues, and the actors bring distinct personality. For a while, it’s easy to simply go with the flow to see where To the Fore takes you.

However, as innocence is lost so too is character development. The film breezes through its love story, and while it’s charmingly sketched, a few conversations or extended reactions would have given it more depth. The film’s themes are represented by eye-rolling clichés like “Don’t lose your way for the sake of winning,” and once the story kicks into Plot Complication Rush Mode™, the whole thing becomes a race to the bottom to see who can pull themselves back up. Poor sportsmanship, corruption, greed, PEDs, career-ending injuries, illegal racing, loan sharks and infidelity – all the film needs is a few natural disasters and you’ve officially added the kitchen sink. These elements certainly add tension but they aren’t used for much more than melodramatic fodder. The drama is amped without necessarily developing characters – and in some cases, it even reduces their credibility. In particular, Tian’s arc is a series of crappy choices that doesn’t seem consistent with the character. The film doesn’t spend enough time developing him, and Shawn Dou’s performance is so earnest and decent that Tian’s darkness never rings true.

Other characters are better served, in large part because the actors are stronger. Wang Luodan’s plain beauty and strong dignity make Shiyao more identifiable than she should be; Shiyao gets a complete arc that ends appropriately, but she’s still mostly “the girl” of the piece. Eddie Peng is in his element, showing the boyish charm and screen charisma that’s long earmarked him for stardom. Ming runs the gamut from arrogant and temperamental to selfless and contrite, and Peng consistently convinces regardless of the situation. Choi Siwon is the least developed of the leads but his charismatic presence makes him credible even when he’s speaking poorly enunciated English. Andrew Lin and Nana Ouyang (as Lin’s daughter and Radiant Team’s manager) offer solid support, Carlos Chan appears as the token Hong Kong cycler in the cast, and Carl Ng cameos as a slimy agent with the malevolent demeanor of a Bond villain. His cartoonish character is hilariously bad, and a symptom of the film’s mad attempt to pack in too many complications. Tackling this spectrum of themes requires some nuance that To the Fore sorely lacks.

The plentiful racing action provides its fair share of excitement. Cycling scenes are shot and edited sharply, and Henry Lai’s bombastic score ups the drama considerably if occasionally ridiculously. The film does a decent job of explaining the jargon and concepts of professional cycling, and the occasional wipeouts add kinetic impact. There are also entertaining, though sometimes unbelievable twists employed during some races, including the final one where the three men reunite for a supposedly redemptive duel in the desert. The action offers some surprise, but Dante Lam could have built more effectively towards the final race. Foreshadowing or callbacks throughout the races would have made the film more cathartic but, as is, the final race isn’t really more exciting than the ones before it. Also, it’s hard to believe that some of these cyclists would be eligible for later races, what with the illegal racing and performance-enhancing drug subplots. This is another area where some explanation might have made events more credible, or at least quelled some doubt.

As summer entertainment, To the Fore has its charms. The film feels like a youth idol drama thanks to its sunny weather, beautiful boys and romantic clichés. On a technical level, this is fine eye candy, with dazzling locations that are sharply lensed – for the most part, anyway, as image resolution suffers during drone shots and some racing sequences. The image issues drag the production down a notch, but on the whole this is a professional, technically-superior film that really shows off its budget. It’s a shame then that Dante Lam and his co-writers couldn’t have polished the story to the same level. Lam is a fine director – among Hong Kong’s best – but story problems are not new for him. Even his sublime Unbeatable featured a ridiculous story conceit – that an aging ex-boxer could somehow become a major mixed martial arts contender in less than six months – and it’s issues like this that bring down what should be Hong Kong’s best commercial work. On the laundry list of stuff Hong Kong Cinema should fix, screenwriting should be bumped right to the top. (Kozo, 8/2015)



DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3, 5, 6 NTSC
2-Disc Special Edition
Vicol Entertainment Ltd. (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Cantonese Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
Various Extras Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen