Wrestling is a curious, if not entirely foreign, form of sport in Taiwan. Few people practice it, and most of us probably derive our notion of the spectacle from wrestling shows on TV that involve a bunch of macho guys wearing flamboyant costumes while slamming each other to the mat. Now, the little known sport gets the documentary treatment with up-and-coming director Chung Chuan’s (鍾權) Face to Face (正面迎擊), which offers an intimate portrait of a group of ordinary men struggling to stay in the ring in the face of monetary, social and family obstacles.
It is clear right from the beginning that Chung never intends to observe his subjects from a distance. His camera is always among the people he films, following them closely. In return, the characters forget that they are being filmed and reveal their thoughts and feelings directly to the camera. It is with this sense of closeness that the film sheds light on the hitherto enigmatic world of Taiwanese wrestling.
We are first introduced to Chiang Chi-li (姜基禮), a former record-holding swimmer who immediately fell in love with wrestling after seeing a show by female wrestlers during a trip to Japan. He co-founded Taiwan Wrestling Taipei (台灣摔角聯盟, TWT), sustaining his athletic passion with a job as a clothing wholesaler. With barely an audience and hardly any form of sponsorship, the TWT leader is seen wrestling not only fellow players, but with his own complex feelings about the sports obscurity. Attempts to procure commercial funding is frequently frustrated as the combat sport is deemed too violent by companies and businesses. By night, Chiang often sits amid heaps of clothes, mending costumes for others.
Lin Hung-lung (林宏隆) has his own burdens and worries. Born and raised in a poor family, Lin is an IT engineer but takes on a second job as a convenience store clerk to boost his income. A wrestler with more than 10 years’ experience, Lin nevertheless keeps his hobby a secret to avoid upsetting his mother, who worries about her son being injured. An incessant worrier inside the ring, the 30-year-old Lin longs to have a family of his own offstage. But as the bachelor repeatedly says in the film, he doesn’t have the courage to talk to women because he is “too ugly.”
Lin’s pupil Hsu Ying-chieh (許鷹傑) also has problems with girls. A 20-something zhainan (宅男) — a term that refers to homebound, nerdy guys immersed in comics, cartoons, computers and online games — Hsu enters the world of cosplay and wrestling as a way to escape reality, where his courtships with women always fail and his friends think he’s a little odd.
Other wrestlers like Wang Chun-wei (王俊偉), who works as a bartender in Taoyuan County, struggle to make ends meet while finding time to wrestle.
On the face of it, Face to Face sounds like your usual motivational documentary movie about a group of ordinary people striving to make their dream come true. But director Chung is much more clever than that. He doesn’t shy away from conflicts and egoism that create antagonism and hurt amongst those who are involved. The director approaches each individual with an equal amount of understanding and tenderness as he explores how these wrestlers define who they are both in life and on stage.
The resulting work is an intelligent reflection on the art of wrestling and how the scripted entertainment becomes an indispensable venue for those who are frustrated and even denied in life to seek self-realization, confidence and a moment to shine in the ring, in the glittering costume of the formidable wrestling personas they assume.
It is also to the director’s credit that the film captures late entertainer and cross-dressing actor Da Bing (大炳), whose real name was Yu Bing-hsian (余炳賢), before he died of pneumonia last year at age 37 after a long-running struggle with drug addiction and a series of convictions for drug use. In answer to Huang’s request, the veteran entertainer came to the aid of the group and gave the wrestlers acting and performance courses. To some extent, the film is a fitting epitaph for Yu, who is remembered as a warm, fun-loving gay comedian and advocate of LGBT rights, who in a humorous sequence tells Chiang that he is probably gay and should consider coming out of the closet.