Netflixable? Chinese “Zero to Hero” plays the heartstrings

Zero to Hero” is a heartwarming story of a paralympian, the obstacles he has to overcome and the mother behind him every tentative step, all the way to the finish line.

This Around the World with Netflix offering is about So Wa Wai, one of the most famous of all paralympians, and features some distinctly Chinese touches — “Mom” is a Tiger Mom, and how — and a bluntness about its hero’s plight that breaks up the sentimentality built into the story.

So was a sprinter who competed in five different Paralympiads, collecting 12 medals from Atlanta to London. Director Chin Man Wan and screenwriter David Lo frame the story within the one-time “Wonder Boy” making a comeback at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. From the startling line of the 200 meter sprint, he thinks back over everything he had to overcome just to get there.’

We see his mother, played by veteran Hong Kong actress Sandra Ng (“Moster Hunt,” “Beauty on Duty”) sprint to the hospital with her baby where she gets the bad news. “Hemolytic jaundice” has given him brain damage. So much muscle control is lost that “He may never be able to walk or eat on his own.” Even speech will be difficult.

Mom is given a life and death choice right there, and she elects for the risky procedure that will save little Wa Wai’s life. He loses much of his hearing, and she hocks a watch to buy him a hearing aid.

She carries him on her back for years, drags him to work with her at a laundry, keeping him in a dog cage while she’s working. The film’s heart-breaking signature scene isn’t on the track or the medals ceremony podium. It comes when the little boy is able to crawl out of that cage and clever enough to think it’s a cute prank to pull on Mom. She drops him on the dangerous industrial conveyor belt, shouts “You have to walk RIGHT NOW or just DIE here (in Cantonese with English subtitles)!”

It’s an over-the-top “tough love” moment, and just nuts when you think about it. The fact that no miracle occurs, despite the omnipresent “Ah-ah-ah-ah-aaaaahhhh” heavenly chorus on the soundtrack, doesn’t spoil the moment or her punch line.

“No one will ever treat you like an ordinary person,” she counsels. “So just be extraordinary!”

As Wa Wai picks up speech, learns to write and staggers to his feet, we can see he’s taken that challenge to heart. And when Mom sees him fleeing bullies with ease in their high rise apartment project, she takes the gawky teen to sign up for paralympic training, even though he’s under age.

Coach Fong (Louis Cheung), a former Paralympian himself, takes him on, bans his hovering, doting mother from practice and turns the raw talent into a sprinting champion.

The most interesting points on this standard waypoints (athletic) “hero’s journey” are not the pitfalls Wa Wai — played by Tin Lok Choi as a little boy, Ho Yeung Fung as a teen and Chung-Hang Leung as a world-beating adult — faces coming up. The scenes with bite are the soul-slapping moments that happen after stardom.

A younger brother (Locker Lam) bridles at his lifelong status as the baby his parents had “to look after Wa Wai.” Mom and the entire family struggle to pay for Wa Wai’s training and upkeep, and makes endorsement deals that exhaust and exasperate her oldest son.

“Mama is always watching you” even carries over to his love life, his crush on the coach’s daughter (Suet-Ying Chung).

“Zero to Hero” is conventional enough to pass for comfort food, but just edgy enough to render its “Jim Thorpe: All American/Chariots of Fire” formula fresh.

It’s meant to be inspiring and a little sentimental, and thanks to sturdy service behind the camera and tearful turns in front of it, it is.

Rating: TV-14

Cast: Sandra Ng, Chung-Hang Leung, Louis Cheung, Suet-Ying Chung, Locker Lam and Tony Tsz-Tung Wu

Credits: Directed by Chin Man Wan, scripted by David Lo. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:42

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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