By Jef Catapang
It's evident within the opening moments of director Ursula Liang's engrossing documentary, 9-Man, that the world it explores is knotted with issues of race and masculinity. "This was something uniquely ours," says a coach, reflecting on how pioneering Asian players didn't have to worry about their larger white or Black friends "muscling in."
9-Man is a Chinese-American sport, tracing its roots to the southern China city of Toisan. It resembles typical 6-man volleyball but feels a lot more dire. Rules about players' ethnic eligibility, or "content," were established in the early '90s: a team must have six full Chinese players on the court at a time; the remaining three can be mixed-Chinese, or from other Asian descents including Japanese, Korean, and Filipino. A team can challenge the legitimacy of their opponent's lineup, as happened to Toronto at one North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament, when two of T.O.'s biracial Black players had their Asian heritage questioned. Later in the documentary Abhi Janghala is denied the right to play because of his Indian background. "Last time I checked, that's Asian to me," offers Joe Tran, a Vietnamese New Yorker, lamenting that a "mostly white" player with a fraction of Chinese blood would qualify whereas Janghala gets stuck to the sidelines.
Every volley is thickly layered with passion, thanks to the sheer number of bodies on the court, the speed of play, Liang's charged camerawork, and candid interviews with the league's players. Interviews run from funny to eye watering, and training sequences carry a tense atmosphere of ambition and consequence. Animated segments throughout the film communicate some of the sport's rules and practices. Trash-talking is allowed. A juicy overpass is called a cha siu bao, a pork-filled bun. These segments don't so much explain the game as much as give the sense that we're dealing with something complicated and insider-y (as all sports can be). And it sets the stage perfectly for when the film delves into 9-Man's messy racial regulations—seemingly an ongoing topic of debate.
9-man's more inward-looking supporters say the protectionist policies are not about exclusion but about keeping the cultural aspect of the sport intact. The historic ghettoization of Chinese immigrants played a big part in 9-man's flourishing, and it's clear that participants value the athletic competition as much as the ties to this cultural heritage and the overall sense of belonging. "It's flattering that other cultures want to get involved. But there's a line, and we've got to keep that line," says a player from Toronto.
One scene follows an athlete at his day job working on a railway, noting the irony of a Chinese man digging tracks with his Irish co-worker. Later, he confides to the camera that he's not fully comfortable around his white colleagues. He's unsure of how to interpret their friendliness, whether it's genuine or just political correctness. This everyday unease contrasts markedly with his joy, captured wonderfully by the film, during game sequences. We see it in his posture: 9-man makes him feel alive, free to express a confidence and physicality not typically associated with Asian males.
The earlier comment about larger kids from other backgrounds not being able to "muscle in" reaches an interesting end point at the final championships, where a team of admitted ringers, super tall Asian American professional volleyball players who take breaks from the polished pro circuit to revisit the ruggedness of 9-Man, tower their way onto the court. Pros compete against hobbyists, and the average-height Asians at the end of the day still find themselves facing the genetics of giants. It's complicated. It's a good game.
Throughout the film's 90-minute running time you get the sense that this could be the last game someone plays, the last chance a team has at grabbing the gold, the last generation to put their lives on hold to run these organized tournaments that nobody outside of the community really knows about. Often at the same time, 9-Man feels like an introduction to a vibrant, happening scene, and a eulogy for something slowly fading. It's a documentary capturing exactly the right moment.