Less about baseball and more about the difficulties inherent in being Chinese and bi/homosexual, City Without Baseball has received no small amount of press in Hong Kong. This is, without question, the most mainstream, high-profile film yet from HK addressing one of China’s great unspoken taboos. It’s also a fascinating exercise in creative casting: all of the actors are non-professionals who are actual members of the Hong Kong Baseball Team, and the story is woven loosely from anecdotes they provided.
On the surface, the plot is about the their battle to win in the Pan-Asian League despite being from Hong Kong, a city that is generally unaware that it even has a baseball team. But the real story is that of a number of players experiencing conflicts of sexual identity. This struggle is graphically illustrated by another of the film’s major talking points: it features a copious amount of male frontal nudity. It is hard to underscore how rare this is in any kind of Chinese film – one can only imagine that the pseudo-documentary nature of the picture allowed the censors to even consider it for release; and it’s not even Cat III!
The movie certainly represents a sea-change in HK’s traditional portrayal of young men. Though a smooth, idol-oriented veneer is applied, these are all young professional athletes at the peak of their physical shape being highly sexualized in the service of humanizing homosexuality in a culture notoriously adverse to the subject. For this alone, it is deserving of a certain amount of scrutiny.
Which is not to say, pun inevitable, that this is a home run of a picture. Lawrence Ah Mon directs, and coming from a lengthy spate of second-string action and triad pictures, he brings his typically glossy, vacuous aesthetic with him. The intersecting plots hang by flimsy threads, and the cinematography is wildly incongruous to the subject matter. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible not to be pulled into this film, thanks to the phenomenal amateur performances from the members of the Hong Kong Baseball Team and the frankly wonderful script by first-time screenwriter Scud.
Even in an industry obsessed with nicknaming its talent, it’s hard not to pay attention to a pseudonym as symbolically potent as Scud. Not only is his maiden film a bit of a tactical blow aimed at a country already obsessed with pretty young men, its overt phallusy (let me invent a word, dammit) is certainly reflected in the film’s frank examination of sexual crisis. All this aside, the important thing is that this boy can write. Many a scene veering dangerously close to traditional, overpoweringly nostalgic Hong Kong melodrama is saved at the last moment by a line of dialogue so revelatory that more than once I was jolted back to attention.
Its calculated sexuality is surprising because it focuses on men, and in a brazenly straightforward and even lurid fashion that would never, ever fly even in an America offering. Its script is shockingly competent and oftentimes sincerely wonderful. By all rights, a film by a b-list director from a first-time gay writer with a cast made up entirely of non-actors focused around a sport no Chinese national cares about and featuring a lengthy procession of naked men has no right being this engaging. If not necessarily a triumph of filmmaking, its popularity is certainly a triumph for the visibility of gay rights in China, which is an honor very few other films in the history of queer cinema can share.
Pretty heady for a picture that is ostensibly about how everyone in China hates baseball.