Film Review: Paraplegic Climber Defies All Odds in Light-Hearted Sports Drama ‘Lion Rock’ 《狮子山上》
In 2011, Lai Chi-wai – one of the top rock climbers in Asia – lost everything when a motorcycle accident took away his ability to walk. Rather than succumbing to his fate, Lai found his own way of scaling those dizzying peaks again.
Director: Nick Leung
Cast: Alex Lam, Michelle Wai, Stephanie Che, Kevin Chu, Angela Yuen, Teresa Carpio
Country: Hong Kong
Runtime: 96 minutes
Based on the true story of paraplegic climber Lai Chi-Wai, Lion Rock offers an inspiring tale of redemption and determination. However, while the film’s lighthearted tone and familiar story beats make for a solid blockbuster, how Lion Rock tends to avoid taking itself too seriously holds the film back from achieving greatness. Still, the film is well worth a watch for an easygoing, fuss-free sports drama with select highlights from the cast.
Lion Rock begins at the turning point of Lai’s life. Once the top rock climbers in Asia, a motorcycle accident leaves him wheelchair-bound. His story is paralleled by the in-film character of Tai-Wai (Alex Lam). Over the course of the film, he learns to live with the reality of his situation and with his new role as a father, with the ultimate goal of scaling Hong Kong’s Lion Rock mountain despite his condition.
Almost immediately from the tragedy, Lion Rock makes clear its tone. There’s a welcomed depth of comedy but it tends to overreach into the film’s emotional bank in its first half. The weight of life-altering accidents and childbirths are mostly handwaved away. Tai-Wai’s frequent hallucinations, attributed to the morphine intake as part of his treatment, mostly go nowhere other than to add a tinge of whimsy. These are not helped by the film’s score, dominated by choral chantings that feel more at home in a Christmas movie.
Things do take a turn for the better once Lion Rock starts to take itself seriously — even if tickling hallucinations, where characters are morphed into animals, persist. The hallucinations that do favours for the film’s story are the conversations shared between Tai-Wai’s past and present self, embodying the athlete’s self-doubts and never-say-die attitude.
Central to Lion Rock is its leading character’s growth; a familiar arc executed pleasingly well. While at the top of the world, Tai-Wai is brash and ambitious both on the rock climbing walls and in his love life. Told through flashbacks, a significant portion of the film is devoted to the will-they-won’t-they playful flirtations between Tai-Wai and fellow climber Cathy (Angela Yuen) — despite Tai-Wai being already attached to his now-wife Zoe (Michelle Wai).
While this subplot does feel like padding, the film’s story as a whole does stick the landing. It’s mainly due to emotional highpoints peppered throughout — a monologue by a distraught father involved in Tai-Wai’s life-altering accident comes to mind. Tai-Wai’s growing devotion to his steadfast wife also makes for gripping moments of emotional vulnerability, paying off in the film’s finale as the climber attempts to scale the eponymous mountain.
There is tact in the film’s performances and cinematography. The cast all offer standout moments whenever they are allowed to. Alex Lam does a fine job in being Lion Rock’s emotional core, even if the plot does no favours in adding oomph to his character’s growth. Similarly, Michelle Wai is absorbing in her role whenever she is given the opportunity to step out of the background as Tai-Wai’s wife.
Lion Rock delivers in the cinematography department too. Almost every other shot oozes personality and style, with exciting variations of camera movement and excellent lighting choices. It feels unfortunate that the film’s story does not share the striking tone of its technical aspects.
Unlike its lead character, Lion Rock plays out safely and timidly. There is inspiration to be found in the film, but both its tone and manicured plot felt too unequipped to deliver emotional punches. However, that is not to deny the film’s pop flavour. Playful exchanges between characters, relatable remarks on modern Hong Kong life, and a charming lead all add up to an overall solid watch.
Lion Rock will be gracing Hong Kong Film Festival – Project HK 2021 as its opening film. The screening on opening night will also mark the film’s international premiere. Tickets are selling fast so grab your tickets for Lion Rock now!
About Hong Kong Film Festival – Project HK 2021 (HKF2021)
Held from 12 March to 14 March, HKFF2021 is a hybrid event with both cinema and online screenings celebrating the vibrancy of Hong Kong’s creative industry. A total of 11 feature and short films will be showcased, all in original Cantonese dialogue with both Chinese and English subtitles. Follow the festival’s Facebook page for the latest updates. Check out the full lineup here.