Back On the Mound with Chien-Ming Wang
Chien-Ming Wang's New Documentary Premieres in the U.S.
Every great sports movie shows the road to the big win. But what happens after the glory days? Most athletes retire and go on a golf tour. Others become talk show hosts or open restaurants. Not Chien-Ming Wang (王建民). After a career-ending injury in 2009, Wang was hungry to return and pitch in the majors. His journey was captured by director Frank W. Chen and the documentary, entitled “Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story”, premiered on Thursday, May 9th, 2018 at the Regal Live Theater in downtown Los Angeles alongside the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
By George Ko
Photos by George Ko
The screening was accompanied by many who supported Wang’s career, including his family, his agent Alan Chang, and key people in the documentary: Frank W. Chen, cinematographer Hai-Tao Wu and producer Brian Yang. Yang was also the producer for “Linsanity”, another underdog sports documentary about the rise of basketball star Jeremy Lin.
For many Chinese and Taiwanese, Wang is a childhood hero. He was the first Taiwanese to be widely seen on ESPN, and he played for the Yankees. In a way, Wang paved the path for people like Jeremy Lin and Tzu-Wei Lin (infielder for the Red Sox).
The documentary focuses on Wang’s road to recovery from his injury and also the incredible amounts of training he had to undergo to get back to a 90+ mph pitching arm. More importantly, it was amazing to see just how many coaches, doctors, family members, and friends worked together wholeheartedly just to see Wang back on the mound.
The film also expressed Wang’s personal struggle with the public. When an athlete accomplishes something great and they retire, everyone expects them to go away. In fact, when they resurge, people not only question their return, but also attack their decision. Take Michael Jordan. After retiring from the Chicago Bulls, he returned to the NBA as a Wizard. Many critics, and fans, ridiculed his decision, that his return damaged his legacy. But let’s look at the stats after his return. Jordan played all 82 games in his last season of the NBA and averaged 20 points per game. Just to put that in perspective, Lebron James played 82 games this year. James is 33. Jordan was 41 years old.
There’s something beyond legacy here. In fact, it’s elementary: it’s purely the love for the game, the love for the craft, and the love for the struggle. The “I did it” mentality is beyond the trophies and the championships. It’s something much simpler than all the pomp and circumstance we give national sports credit for: it’s for that Sandlot moment when hitting a ball or sliding into 1st is more gratifying than anything in the world. For Wang, it was just to throw one last strike-out in the Major Leagues.
Wang wanted to share this message with the viewers. “A lot of people had told me, you don’t stand a chance, your baseball career is over. Then I thought, I have to prove to them that I can still play. I held onto that belief and just kept playing.”
Unbeknownst to the viewers, the documentary was not only Frank W. Chen’s first, but his only film. Chen, by profession, is an architect based in Manhattan. The transition from architecture to film was pretty natural to Chen. “In architecture, we talk a lot about space, light, and composition. So, it’s not as big of a jump as people think it is. It’s a learning process, and there’s a learning curve. But it’s not as drastic as people think.”
Chen recalls his first encounter with Wang. “It goes back to 2005 when he made the Yankees team. I was actually in Rhode Island doing my graduate degree in architecture. I took a bus down to New York for the first time in my life and crashed at my sister’s place. We went to Yankee Stadium. I walked in and I was blown away. [You’re] in Yankee Stadium and you see this Taiwanese kid as a starting pitcher. I was very emotional, having the same background coming from Taiwan.”
Chen continues, “I actually met him face-to-face in 2013 through a friend. He was in Scranton, Pennsylvania trying to make it back to the major leagues. We had dinner and afterwards, I saw him try to squeeze into this Toyota rental car. He’s 6’ 4”… It was some effort to get in, and he drove away. I was struck when I saw that. I saw him as this gigantic figure and then I see him driving this rental car. I asked myself, how many people get to see this? Wouldn’t it be great to see this side of a baseball star? So, this contrast really became the driving point for the documentary.”
When Chen confronted Wang about doing the film, he was not too fond of the idea. Chen comments, “He was not into it… He didn’t want to do it. That was in 2014, when he pitched for the Triple-A White Sox. His feeling was that he wasn’t worthy of the movie. I actually started filming some shots of him pitching and practicing without his knowledge. But after a few months [his agent] convinced Wang that this movie could inspire younger generations that want to play baseball or just young people in general. This could be something that inspire Wang’s sons.”
With that, in 2015, Wang gave Chen the okay to film.
At first Wang was uncomfortable in front of the camera. Combined with his modest nature and soft-spoken temper it took a while for him to let loose in front of the lens. But after a few weeks, the camera disappeared and what we see onscreen is the real Chien-Ming Wang.
“I was not used to it at all in the beginning. Everyday, when they concluded shooting they would leave, and I would go about my day. As I got to know everyone better, we would go get meals together after the shoot,” says Wang.
During the post-production phase, Chen shared the film with Brian Yang. After viewing it for the first time, Yang was motivated to help get “Late Life” out into the public.
“This film came to me pretty much after it was shot. Frank and I got introduced by a mutual friend… I instantly fell in love with [the movie]. For me it was really easy to slide in and put in the finishing layer that this film needs, which is helping it find its audience and distribution in this world: getting it out there far and wide. I’m happy to be a part of this. I’m happy to have this calling card in this Asian/Asian American Sports-Docu space.”
Just before we stepped into the screening, I remember asking Wang how he felt about the screening.
“I think I am more nervous than I am excited.”
“Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story” is expected to hit theaters in the United States in November and in Taiwan in December of 2018. The movie also received the Audience Award from the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, alongside “Searching” and “Minding the Gap
For more information on the film, please visit http://www.latelifemovie.com/.