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Frank W. Chen (Director)
I was living in Taiwan in 2005 when Wang Chien Ming made his Major League debut as a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees. The Taiwan-born ace was all over the local news and sports channels, and a frequent conversation topic among my middle school students. The pride and fervor surrounding the third ever Taiwan baseball player to make it to the MLB was huge at the time. His talent, humility and sick sinker made even a lifelong Red Sox fan like me want to root for him (only him, not the Yankees).
After consecutive 19-win seasons in pinstripes in 2006 and 2007, it all came crashing down in 2008. Wang suffered a foot injury while rounding the bases in an interleague game. All athletes are one injury away from retirement, and in baseball, it's especially true for pitchers. Wang's body and game were never the same again after that freak injury. His days on the DL went up and stats crashed down in the sadly familiar trajectory that claims the careers of many pitchers post-injury.
Frank W. Chen's Late Life is ostensibly titled after the late sink of Wang's signature pitch, but it might as well be a reference to the later life of a professional athlete who's past his glory days. The documentary introduces Wang during his lowest moment after he's been released by his latest team and there's no AAA opening for him. To keep playing, he goes to the independent Atlantic League.
Chen's profile of Wang and his long battle to get back into the major league is both melancholic and inspiring. The camera follows him with a broody solemnity and reflective honesty: Wang is that faded star who won't let go and continues to chase after something possibly unattainable – and yet that relentless chase is what makes sports so transcendent and heart-tugging. Respect and appreciation isn't just for those who win, but also those who give their all and fall, those who persist through pain and pride.
More than a few people in the documentary get a bit teary-eyed as they talk about Wang's journey and the emotions suddenly sneak up on them. The calmly tenacious pitcher himself bears onwards with characteristic reticence and discipline, aware that he is not the player he once was but also believing that he still has something left in the tank.
Wang Chien Ming's briefly brilliant career has likely long slipped the minds of most baseball viewers outside of Taiwan. When Late Life popped up on my radar, I was mainly surprised to know that Wang was still playing in the U.S. up until recently. By the end of the documentary, I found myself getting a bit belatedly teary-eyed about his return to the mound. Baseball films, man, they get me every time.