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Would You Pay to See a PR Movie: The Year of Yao

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If you’re a fan of ESPN or sports bios that networks produce to show between sports competitions, you might like “The Year of Yao.”

Yao Ming was the National Basketball Association’s number one draft pick in 2002 and the NBA’s first Chinese player. Becoming the Houston Rocket’s center, at 7-foot-6 he was hard to miss and became an instant curiosity and, eventually, a cultural icon. “The Year of Yao” is about his rookie year.

The music soundtrack is loud and gives obvious cues to what you’re supposed to be feeling and the directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo go for the obvious East meets West angle.

If you’re a fan of documentaries, then give this a pass. This is docu-lite, a PR project produced by China and the NBA Entertainment.

You won’t learn a lot about Yao Ming. As Mainland China’s most visible good PR resource, he is understandably reserved. His parents, who follow him and provide him with homecooking and a family atmosphere in Houston, stay mostly in the background even though they were also national basketball players. His girlfriend is only mentioned and not part of this documentary.

You do meet Yao Ming’s interpreter, Colin Pine, yet you’re never quite sure why the Houston Rockets choose Pine, who had little experience as an interpreter and press conferences. Rookie interpreter meets rookie American basketball star. The relationship between Pine and Yao are perhaps the most effecting moments.

Pine becomes Yao’s guide to Americans and American life. Yet we wonder why the then-28-year-old Baltimore native doesn’t comment about Houston and life in Texas. Wouldn’t that be something of a culture shock for some people. We never get into the life that is Houston nor how the Asian or Chinese population in Houston reacted and if it had any effect at all on their attendance.

Yao, a native of Shanghai, also never reveals the essential nature of Shanghai. China is just China–one large, homogeneous nation. Mao would approve.

Watching Yao learn English, and the coded language of basketball with the Rockets and how to play an aggressive American game of basketball is interesting. Seeing him face-off Shaquille O’Neal is impressive, but his grace under pressure impressives even more. He laughs off O’Neal’s “racist” challenge and, for the most part, is admirable as a cultural ambassador.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of groan-worthy parts, including an interview with former president Bill Clinton and a shot of someone with a basketball (Yao?) on the Great Wall of China. Balancing these off are the antics of Charles Barkley and his outspoken, and eventually wrong, assessment of Yao.

Yao isn’t boring. He or his PR people have made good choices in marketing him in his television commercials for Apple and Visa. His sly humor does shine through on this otherwise slick vehicle of goodwill for both China, basketball and the Houston Rockets.

“The Year of Yao” is superficial and at one hour and 28 minutes, the movie is overlong for what is essentially a commercial or TV sports bio clip, but, at least it’s not boring.

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