The Red Race by Chao Gan

October 23, 2008

This year Zagreb Film Festival offers very interesting selection in the section for documentary films, so I was literary rooted on the chair of the cinema every day from 5pm to 8pm . Exceptions were made only when I decided to see also the feature films, which means that I just stayed sitting for the rest 3 hours.

Excerpt from movie The Red Race

The Red Race by Chan Gao is the most smashing movie in that section, because it deals with Chinese children – gymnasts (somewhere between 5 to 8 years old), during their brutal trainings in the Lu Wan District Youth Athletic School in Shanghai.

Chan Gao graduated Chinese Literature in 2000 at the Fudan University in Shanghai. In 2002 he finished his Master of Arts in Television studies at the Drama Department of the Bristol University in UK. At the moment he works as director / editor at the Documentary Channel  in Shanghai Media Group. His film debut was documentary Last House Standing (2002).

Film The Red Race starts with a gentle and leisure talk between a small girl and her father at the docks in Shanghai. The little one watches big ships, giving some logical remarks to her father about ships being way too big…

Still from The Red Race

In the next moment the viewer sees two cute boys (6 and 8 years old) with their grandmother and grandfather at home. The youngest boy is making complex gymnastic exercises on the bed while the grandfather is mumbling about him being lazy and a cheater while exercising.

The camera than carries you in the school for trainers where you can see the leader of all trainers yelling at them how unproductive they are, because in the previous season the school didn’t have big results at the regional and state championships (by big result he means the first three places, the top!).

The story follows… 6 boys and 2 girls on their sport journey that makes you scary…


‘With the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the recent past, and the world’s focus on China, this tiny little film perfectly captures the paradoxes and myths of the Chinese Olympic juggernaut in its training regimes for children. Seeing the Machine’s toll on the small faces of exhausted, crying children is a revelatory snapshot of a nation’s insistence on dominance and a testimony to its poor citizens and their obligations to the state.’

Still from The Red Race

‘The gymnastic children of The Red Race carry all of these expectations on their proud little shoulders and, through tears and injury, manage to maintain their dignity, striving above all else to make their parents proud and to realize their potential. Despite the slender odds and ceaseless criticism from instructors, they stand firm and behave well beyond their years to exemplify courage and perseverance. The Red Race is a fascinating study in Chinese methodology and gives us glimpses of golden Olympic obsession and the human costs necessary to achieve it.’ (Calgary Film Festival)

Still from The Red Race

Gao as director decided to let the protagonists to speak for themselves, he didn’t use any montage tricks to fasten the rhythm. He didn’t try to give any particular accent in the whole narration. The situations simply grow in the row… it’s ironical… therefore, the narrative speaks itself… the camera approaches very close to the protagonists witnessing the pain of the little athletes, but also the misery of their parents.

The crucial moments in the film happen when director is capturing the ‘pedagogical’ training concept of the instructors, witnessing all brutality that is always on schedule when discussing about the lives of professional athletes. And, the most terrible moment, the parents telling to their own kids that they have to be super top gymnastics in order to make a better living for their mum and dad, grandmother and grandfather.

Still from The Red Race

Parallel with building factories (they look like buildings from a scenario for the newest version of Mad Max) for the most insane industrialization in the world, China is facing the issue of orphans – young couples are giving away their kids for the adoption to the elder people, because it’s impossible for them to take care about them properly due to working hours; and that makes a bonus psychological obligation to the kids to be super top gymnastics, to impress their parents who let them away…

October 24, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

Very nicely written entry. Thanks for the info and update on Chan

October 24, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

Very nicely written entry. Thanks for the info and update on Chan Gao.

December 15, 2009 @ 5:49 am

Interesting post. I have made a twitter post about this. Others no doubt will like it like I did.

  • Pingback: Interview with Chao Gan: Watching films is like dreaming | Personal Cyber Botanica

  • Julia
    August 23, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

    This post lacks a great deal of understanding about Chinese
    culture. The way in which children and elders interact is difficult
    to translate to foreign eyes and ears. I’m not trying to diminish
    the physical and mental stress that these children are put under, I
    just want to provide perspective to the coaches and parents who you
    seem to demonize.

    August 23, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

    Hi Julia! Only one blog post and few lines are definitely not
    enough to cover the greatness of Chinese culture, culture that I
    adore and respect, especially Taoism. When it’s about children and
    China, I totally disagree with you and I don’t think we are talking
    here about an outsiders look at Chinese culture. There are
    still  some tribal practices on Papua New Guinea that would be
    shocking to most people from all cultures around the world, but I
    haven’t heard someone tried to stop them… or female circumcision
    in Africa… unfortunatelly…Personally, I think White Men caused
    way to much trouble around the globe during the history. Yes, we
    did! But personally, that doesn’t prevent me from not  being
    critical to sort of my own culture.

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