‘Zero to Hero’ Review: Biopic of Hong Kong Paralympics Champ So Wa-wai

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Hong Kong’s Oscar submission is an entertaining feel-good biography of So Wa-wai, the national sporting hero who won 12 medals in five Paralympic Games from 1996 to 2012. Focused on the powerful bond between the disabled runner and his fiercely dedicated mother, “Hero” injects just enough gritty drama about the champion’s financial and emotional battles to prevent the story being overwhelmed by sugary sentiment applied liberally elsewhere. The first film directed solo by “Love Off the Cuff” writer Jimmy Wan struck gold in Hong Kong cinemas in August and is likely to be the silver medalist behind “Anita” as top-grossing local film of the year. “Hero” sprinted onto Netflix in the U.S. and other territories on Nov. 5.

Following the conventions of sports biographies from the first frame, Wan’s film opens with the athlete known as “Wonder Boy” poised on the starting blocks at the 2012 Beijing Paralympics. No sooner has a TV announcer breathlessly asked whether this will be So’s “last run for glory” than the action spins back to Guangzhou, 1981, and the birth of a boy with hemolytic jaundice causing cerebral palsy and severe hearing loss.

The early going is grim, starting with life-and-death surgery to save baby So’s life. Struggling for years to cope with a child who may never be able to walk or eat properly, his working-class Mom (Sandra Ng) hauls So (Choi Tin-lok) around on her back and keeps him in a steel cage while she works in a dirty factory. In the film’s most extraordinary scene the exasperated Mom places infant So on a conveyor belt that will carry him to certain death unless he can walk back to her. “Walk right now or let’s die together,” she screams before hitting the stop button at the last moment and collapsing in near-hysteria. A few shamelessly manipulative seconds later, So manages to pull himself up on a railing and takes his tentative first steps.

Here, and at almost every other emotional pivot point, the soundtrack swells with heavenly harmonies supplied by the 65-member Hong Kong Children’s Choir. The youngsters create beautiful sounds but their voices are called upon way too often, and sometimes to the point of irritation.

The tone is much lighter when we next catch up with So (Fung Ho-yeung) as a determined 13-year-old who has speech, handwriting and mobility capabilities that once seemed unattainable. After watching So outrun a gang of bullies in their crowded apartment block, Mom takes the fleet-footed lad to train with Coach Fong (Louis Cheung), a former Paralympian with a trio of appealing runners in his stable.

“Hero” breezes along nicely as So gets to know friendly guy Gai (Mak Pui-tung), oddball Keung (Yeung Wai-lun) and Train Tung (Tony Wu Tsz-tung), a hothead with “issues” about whether So is up to the task. With Mom constantly by his side and offering inspirational words such as “instead of crying hard, run hard,” So rises to the occasion and begins his brilliant career as a member of Hong Kong’s gold medal-winning 4 × 100m team in Atlanta, 1996. Apart from some wobbly background CGI of Olympic arenas, Wan re-creates So’s numerous triumphs on the track with creative camerawork and razor-sharp editing.

The film’s strongest sections deal with economic and emotional realities facing adult So (Leung Chung-hang). After his father (Chin Siu-ho) suffers a debilitating injury, So is forced to abandon training and work as a courier to support his struggling family. The huge discrepancy between what Paralympians and Olympians receive for winning medals is highlighted in rousing public statements by Mom, who demands “equal pay for equal work.” When she secures sponsorship deals through sports agent Victor (comedian Luk Wing-chen, appearing under his Wing6 moniker), So discovers how tough and sometimes demeaning it can be to keep his running dream alive. Toughest of all for So is his thwarted romance with Coach Fung’s daughter, Gill (Chung Suet-ying), who’s been a kind and loyal friend since teenage years. When So finally musters the courage to declare his true feelings, Gill’s brutally honest reply is “you are not the man of my dreams.”

Though characters including So’s father and his resentful kid brother Kin-wai (Locker Lam) are paid far too little attention, and several scenes that begin firmly end up sliding into overripe melodrama, “Hero” is kept on course by excellent lead performances. Stage actor Leung is convincing and affecting as the athlete who simply loves running as fast as he possibly can (So still holds holds the 100- and 200-meter world records in the men’s T36 division). Also serving as the film’s producer, distinguished veteran Ng (“Portland Street Blues,” the “Golden Chicken” movies) commands the screen with an impassioned turn as the mother who must sometimes exercise the toughest of love to get her son over the line both on and off the track.

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