'The Last Race' ('Zhong Ji Sheng Li'): Film Review

Courtesy of Innowave Limited
A dropped baton.

Joseph Fiennes stars in a Chinese-financed production documenting the war-stricken final years of Eric Liddell, the British athlete previously portrayed in 'Chariots of Fire.'

Ever since news broke last year of a Chinese-backed production about the post-Olympian years of Chariots of Fire protagonist Eric Liddell, much has been said about how the film was expected to downplay the British athlete-turned-missionary's Christianity. As it turns out, the problem of the film is more one of artistic merit than ideological slant. Boasting two directors - Hong Kong's Stephen Shin and Canadian Michael Parker - who penned the screenplay with two more writers, The Last Race offers uneven, unfocused storytelling, with the account of Liddell's extraordinary China-set final years hampered by too many unnecessary diversions.

Rather than providing a substantial portrait of a man struggling with himself and his circumstances - an approach which propelled Chariots of Fire to its Oscar triumph 35 years ago - The Last Race introduces a multitude of fictional supporting characters who, with their own melodramatic traits, overshadow Liddell (Joseph Fiennes) himself. Whizzing from one character and plot point to another, the screenplay ends up an aggregation of truncated scenes, with minimal emotional impact wrung from devastating air raids, poignant separations or the titular tragic-heroic contest between Liddell and his Japanese captor. While The Last Race was seemingly sanctioned by the Liddell family, whose names figure in the acknowledgements in the rolling credits, it might not find as warm a reception from audiences expecting something to at least match the full-fleshed humanity brought about by Hugh Hudson and Ian Charleson three decades ago.

The Last Race begins sometime around 1940 or 1941. Liddell's sporting exploits at the 1924 Olympics, mentioned briefly in some on-screen text, are a distant memory, and the Scot has already spent more than a decade working as a missionary and teacher in Tianjin, the city he was born in. Liddell's life begins to crack as the Japanese army intrudes into the nominally war-free British concession where he lives. Sending his wife Florence (Elizabeth Arends) and their children off to safety in Canada, Liddell continues his work until he, along with all foreign citizens, are transported to an internment camp after Japan's declaration of war against the Allies.

This is where Liddell's tragic final days unfold. Former internees have recalled over the years how the missionary continued to teach and preach by day, and risked Japanese wrath by arranging for food to be smuggled into the camp, and how he refused to leave the camp in a prison exchange deal negotiated personally by Winston Churchill (and asked a pregnant woman to go in his place). All these details made it to the film, plus the fictional sprints Liddell was forced to take part in with the Japanese camp commandant as an effort to secure more food and security for his friends.

But Fiennes' commendable efforts in illustrating Liddell's mix of anguish, anxiety and generosity are lost in the screen time allocated to the characters around him. There's the young couple, Hugh (Jesse Kove) and Catherine (Augusta Xu-Holland), whose relationship is given more prominence than the anguished long-distance yearning between Liddell and his wife. And then there's rickshaw driver Xu Niu (Shawn Dou), who starts the film as the local sidekick but gradually overtakes Liddell in the action department with his moves and ploys in getting supplies into the camp. In fact, the film actually ends with Xu completing his rite of patriotic passage via a dramatically redundant but perhaps politically necessary (for the production, not the characters) act in confronting the Japanese after Japan's surrender.

While Liddell's Christianity is not exactly omnipresent, religion is visibly and audibly present throughout. Crosses and churches appear frequently on screen, as Liddell presides over weddings and the singing of hymns; while composer Chris Babida serves up a Vangelis-like tune to back many a scene of characters running, it is over the camp inmates' collective rendition of Amazing Grace that an ailing Liddell completes his tragic-heroic race against the Japanese commandant toward the end of the film.

Cheng Siu-keung and Horace Ma offer tight visuals and decor that vividly remind the viewer of the fallout of war. But when The Last Race is done, it hardly leaves one marveling.

Production companies: Innowave Limited and Goodland Pictures, in a Sil-Metropole Organisation, Max Gain Kapital Group, Ideal Sunbeam, Beijing Forbidden City Film Company presentation

Cast:  Joseph Fiennes, Shawn Dou, Elizabeth Arends, Jesse Kove

Director: Stephen Shin, Michael Parker

Screenwriters: Stephen Shin, Rubby Xu, Michael Parker, Christopher C. Chan

Producers: Stephen Lam, James Green, Mark Bacino, Elvis Lee, Stephen Shin

Executive producers: Brandon Millan, Stephen Fan, Qian Zhongyuan

Director of photography: Cheng Siu-keung

Production designer: Horace Ma

Costume designer: Mok Kwan-kit

Music: Chris Babida

International Sales: Alibaba Pictures

In English, Mandarin and Japanese

No ratings; 106 minutes