The greatest crime Ursula Liang’s film 9-Man commits is getting us hooked on a sport that most of us will never get a chance to play. Okay, this is not a crime per say, but it is hard to watch the film and not want to immediately seek out the nearest 9-Man game. Similar to the non-Asian bystanders who watch from the sidelines chomping at the bit to play, we cannot help but wonder if the organizer could not bend their rules just a little bit. Of course, this would go against everything 9-Man represents from a cultural standpoint.
A staple in the both Chinese-American and Chinese-Canadian communities for decades, 9-Man is a sport whose legacy is just as important as the trophy its players compete for. Taking inspiration from 6-man volleyball, or the “sissy version” as some to the 9-Man players refer to it, there is more to the sport than the three additional bodies on the court. Played on the hard asphalt amidst manhole covers and broken bottles, 9-Man has grown from its time in the back alleys of Chinatown to massive 45 team tournaments in major cities. The rules are similar to traditional volleyball with a few key differences. The major one being that there must be at least six Chinese players on the court at all times. Teams are allowed to have non-Chinese players on their roster but the individuals must be of Asian bloodlines.
Though the exclusive nature of the sport may lead some to question if its rules are racist, Liang’s film presents a good case for the desire to preserve one’s culture. For many of the players featured in the film, 9-Man is the only thing that keeps them connected to their heritage. Growing up in North America, and seeing many of the Chinatowns within various cities becoming more gentrified, there is a deep cultural void amongst many of the men. Liang shows how years of being marginalized, including the shameful racist laws instituted by both the American and Canadian governments, has led to the self-empowered community that 9-Man fosters. The deep and urgent need to maintain a sense of community is so strong that even a drunken fight between players is a reminder of how easily it could all fall apart.
As engaging as the historical aspects are, especially the accounts from former players who came to America during a time where most Asians either worked in a restaurant or a laundry mat, what makes the film really thrilling is the game itself. Focusing her camera on four specific teams (Boston Knights, Washington CYC, Boston Freemasons, and the mighty Toronto Connex) vying to win the illustrious 9-Man tournament in Boston, Liang crafts a compelling sports film full of heroes and villains. We see the teams practicing, partying, and giving it there all in the physically punishing matches they play. Not only does Liang spend equal time with the teams, but also gets some great candid moments with the coaches and star players like Toronto’s own Jeff Chung. She ups the excitement and tension even further by introducing a wild card team, complete with volleyball Olympian Kevin Wong, late into the film.
On par with some of the best sport films, it easy to be won over by the numerous charms that are on display in 9-Man. Capturing both the fierceness of competition and the somber reality of modern Asian-American/Asian-Canadian culture, 9-Man is a crowd-pleaser that will have you cheering as soon as the credits roll.