Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Salaya Doc 2012 review: The Cheer Ambassadors

Assistant cheerleading coach and production manager Tae Phithakrattanayothin and director Luke Cassady-Dorian at the Salaya Doc post-screening Q&A with Thai Film Archive programmer Sanchai Chotirosseranee.

  • Directed by Luke Cassady-Dorian
  • Screened at 2nd Salaya International Documentary Festival, March 25, 2012; unrated
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

It's the type of uplifting, inspirational story I usually run screaming from. But The Cheer Ambassadors, about plucky Thai cheerleaders who beat the odds to be ranked among the best squads in the world, won me over with boundless enthusiasm and a side trip into the darker aspects of human nature.

At the center of the film is Sarawut "Toey" Samniangdee, coach of the Bangkok University cheerleading squad. A dancer by vocation, he was inspired to get into cheerleading by two things – late-night ESPN showings of the World Cheerleading Championships and YouTube clips of cheerleading stunts and the renowned limitless energy of Thai singer "Bird" Thongchai McIntyre.

The slickly produced doc traces the origins of cheerleading and the rise of the sport (yeah, that's right, sport) in Thailand, which became popular thanks to annual sanctioned cheerleading competitions at Seacon Square, a huge mall in suburban eastern Bangkok.

Toey, known for his interest in cheerleading, became coach of the Bangkok University squad, and with the help of other key figures profiled in the film, he made it their goal to compete in the World Cheerleading Championships in Orlando, Florida. He pushed them into a rigorous regimen that had them training at night, so they wouldn't be jet-lagged when they arrived for competition in the States.

So cue the footage of training. Strength and flexibility work-outs were key, because the Thais were disadvantaged for a couple of reasons: gymnastics training is almost unheard of at young ages, unlike the U.S. and other Western countries; and Thai men are about half the size of their hulking American counterparts, who are lifting women about half their size; Thai men and women are similar in size, so the Thai guys (and gals) had to bulk up their muscles in order to provide a steady base for the elaborate pyramids.

It's those pyramids that are key to the Thai team's success, and Toey's diagrams of his pyramids from his colorfully illustrated cheerleading notebook form the basis of a motion-graphic presentation that only adds to the documentary's slickness and energy. An interesting mix of grainy archival footage is offset by newer, high-definition video. And a soundtrack of contemporary Thai and foreign pop music keeps things pumping.

Sports movies rely on those elements as told in the old ABC "Wide World of Sports introduction, "the thrill of victory ... the agony of defeat". And The Cheer Ambassadors has them.

For Toey, his crashing moment comes amid an interview in which he's talking about his drive for perfection and he's complaining about his team's weaknesses. Ominously, he's wearing a T-shirt of the evil emperor from Star Wars. "Now, young Skywalker ... you must die."

The screen goes black, and ambulance sounds are heard. Toey's dark side is his obsessive-compulsive behavior. And the story of how he and team bounced back from that is the key to what makes The Cheer Ambassadors an inspiring, uplifting movie that's worth giving a chance to.

As a plus, there's also an interview with the team's astrologist – I bet none of the other cheerleading teams in the world have one of those.

Two years or more in the works, The Cheer Ambassadors premiered at the 9th World Film Festival of Bangkok in January (after it was postponed from November because of the floods), and was screened at the 2nd Salaya International Documentary Film Festival. The European premiere will be at the 60°N Os International Film Festival in Norway, April 21-28. There's also a possible theatrical release in the works for Thailand.

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