Most sports films end with scenes of celebration. ‘Come on China’ doesn’t. Zhang Junzhao’s film focuses on hard work and struggle rather than glory. In doing so, it reflects the painful reality of Chinese football in the 1980s.
Close to reality
Made by the Guangxi Film Studio in 1985, Come on China (加油，中国队) is about China’s attempt to qualify for the ‘Future Cup’. Although fictional, the film is clearly inspired by real life events. The scenario the film is based on is the same one China faced when trying to reach Spain’82 and the ending is similar to events after the China – Hong Kong game earlier in 1985. Whilst audiences in other countries might’ve yearned for on screen glory, director Zhang Junzhao stuck to the painful reality.
As well as being familiar with the ending, audiences would also have recognised the film’s stars. Come on China features seven retired internationals led by Rong Zhixing – see main image. As in real life, the Cantonese player is the team’s star. His character is injured though and not expected to play in the crucial game. However, in one of the many corny moments in the film, the team bus screeches to a halt when they see Rong’s character waiting by the roadside.
His character joins the training sessions alongside fellow Cantonese Cai Jinbiao, former China captain Chi Shangbin as well as Liu Zhicai and Yang Yumin also from Dalian, another former China captain Zuo Shusheng and his Tianjin teammate Wang Jianying, with Wang Feng from Guizhou completing the set of ex-players.
The film shows the build up to the final qualifying game for the Future Cup. China must win to reach their first ever international tournament (even if fictional). The players sweat through brutal, repetitive training sessions, and Rong’s character even does extra training at night in a bid to get fit.
Come on China also references a few reasons for China’s failure to qualify for an international tournament. In one classroom scene, it emerges that half the team had no formal education beyond primary school. The teacher concludes that deficiencies in both intellect aand physical quality are holding China back.
The film isn’t all sweat and gloom though. There are stirring speeches and the team are also inspired by watching a Paralympic long jumper training. We also see shots of the next generation learning to play football in Beijing’s hutongs.
Fictional fan culture
Come on China also offers a look at fictional fan culture. It shows the formation of a fan group who use traditional drums to support China, fans scrambling to buy tickets outside Gongti, and expectant fans mobbing the team bus before the game. In the stadium, it shows the crowd being cowed into silence by a wandering policeman until a Chinese goal ramps up the tension and the crowd defies the policeman to cheer for their heroes.
The film portrays a country addicted to football. One of the story lines is about a music teacher who drops everything to take a train to Beijing for the game. It looks like a ticket inspector won’t let her though, until the mere mention of football softens his heart and he allows her onto the train. Even this story line shows suffering. After making it to Beijing she can’t buy a match ticket and is forced to wait outside Gongti when the game begins.
The rest of Beijing comes to a halt for the game. Students watch on TV in lecture theatres, workers watch in offices and a crowd gathers outside a TV shop to watch through the window. Even a bus driver pulls over by the side of the road to catch a glimpse of the action on TV.
China’s opponents in the crunch game are fictional middle eastern country Amiansha (阿面沙) – although confusingly a crowd shot shows the Algerian flag. Other images from this part of the film also leave something to be desired. The panoramic shots of the pitch are filmed without zoom and the close ups of penalty box action are from awkward angles.
From the action shots we can see, China are without their star player. Worse, they fall behind to their green and white shirted opponents. After a half time visit to the dressing room by an official and his daughter, Rong’s character comes on as a sub. China mount a comeback and their goals spark scenes of joy and a change of heart for one pick pocket who returns a purse
After some twists and turns, including a dressing room intervention by an official and his daughter to get Rong’s character on as a sub, the game eventually goes to penalties. Rong’s character has the decisive spot kick. Having given his all for his country, he can barely hobble to the penalty spot though. In most films this would be the perfect stage for a hero to be made but Come on China is different to most films. Instead, it is crushingly similar to the reality of Chinese football at the time. We don’t see where exactly the penalty goes, but we know the one place it doesn’t; the back of the net.
Despite the glorious failure, the film ends on an optimistic note. The future careers of the fictional players flash across the screen – football coach, policeman, factory worker – interspersed with roars from Gongti as China’s struggle to qualify continues. Beaten they may be, but Come on China shows hope for the future. China had to wait until 2002 for it to become a reality.
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