Saturday, January 8, 2011

China seeking football redemption at Asian Cup

China has become a sporting superpower over the last decade, winning Olympic and Asian Games gold medals in just about every sport, but it has struggled to succeed in the world's most popular game _ football.

China's footballing fortunes have dipped since 2002 with corruption and management problems compounded by the team failing to qualify for the World Cup in 2006 and 2010.

The failures in the international arena prompted much angst among the country's sporting authorities and top government leaders who are used to success, including the dominating performance of the country's athletes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

While China's young football team has a chance to redeem itself at the Asian Cup, coach Gao Hongbao was cautious not to overpraise his squad ahead of its opening match against Gulf Cup champion Kuwait on Saturday.

"Our target for this tournament is to test our tactics and see if our football philosophy fits our players," said Gao, who has been credited with improving the team since his appointment two years ago.

Although he knows the team has improved significantly, much can still go wrong.

China climbed from 93rd to 87th in the FIFA world rankings last year, but last month it was eliminated in the knockout round of the Asian Games by eventual champion Japan.

In the last Asian Cup, China failed to advance from the group stage. It also failed to advance from its first-round group at the Olympics in Beijing.

China's failures on the pitch may come down to a lack of school and community teams and the country's overwhelming reliance on elite sports academies to train players from a young age.

While the state system has brought success in technical sports such as gymnastics, it seems poorly suited to football, where star players may not begin to show their true potential until their teens.

In Qatar, the China squad has an average age of 23 and does not feature any players older than 30. The team has little experience in major international competitions and Gao said the tournament will be as much a learning process for his team as it will be a competition.

"This is a young team and I wish our players will focus on the game, not on the result," Gao said.

Kuwait's Serbian coach, Goran Tufegdzic, said China will be a strong opponent in his team's opening match.

"China generally has a very disciplined team with good individual players," Tufegdzic said. "It will be very very difficult match for us, but I believe in our team."

Gao avoided making predictions for China's performance in Qatar despite being drawn into a group that offers the side a strong chance of advancement.

China is in Group A with host Qatar, traditional Central Asian power Uzbekistan and Kuwait, all teams ranked beneath the underperforming Asian giants.

In the run-up to the tournament, China routed Vietnam 6-1 and posted back-to-back wins over Lebanon in qualifying. Wins over Macedonia, Latvia and Estonia in recent friendlies strengthened the team's desire to achieve more.

"We are a young team, but have more passion and a lot of self-confidence," China midfielder Yu Hai said.

Yu said he hoped the team's long and strenuous training sessions will improve the sport's image at home and gain it more popularity if they reach the quarterfinals.

"I hope our hard work can help change our football and help it recover from a bad situation," Yu said. "We will play 100 percent against any opponent and we wish to achieve a good result."

China has never won the Asian Cup but was runner-up in 2004 when it lost out to Japan. And while it might not come close to winning this time around, Gao said he can "see the day in my lifetime when China will be the champion of Asia."

17 killed in suicide blast in southern Afghanistan

A Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up among men washing in a bathhouse ahead of Friday prayers, killing 17 people in southern Afghanistan, showing the militants' ability to strike at will remained largely intact despite a NATO offensive that has claimed to push back the insurgents.

Roadside bombs also killed three NATO service members in the south and east, while gunmen shot dead a police inspector in Kandahar's provincial capital, bringing the day's death toll to 21. Authorities said they suspect the Taliban assassinated the police inspector.

The day's violence underscored the dangers in southern Afghanistan _ and in particular Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban. Some of the fiercest fighting in the nearly 10-year war has taken place in the south, where international forces, bolstered by the addition of 30,000 U.S. troops over the summer, are battling to to disrupt the insurgents' network.

The bathhouse bombing in the Kandahar province town of Spin Boldak, just across the border from Pakistan, was the deadliest single attack in Afghanistan in more than a month. Zalmay Ayubi, the Kandahar governor's spokesman, said 16 civilians and a police inspector were killed in the attack, and 23 were wounded.

The Taliban _ in an unusual step given that 16 of the dead were civilians _ quickly claimed responsibility. A Taliban spokesman in the south, Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, said the blast targeted the deputy of an influential border police chief.

The bomber struck around noon, as men gathered in the bathhouse on the main road heading out of Spin Boldak to the Pakistani border, witnesses and officials said. Located in the town's main market, the bathhouse is near a mosque popular with travelers going back and forth from Pakistan.

Twelve-year-old Mohammed Kamran, one of three Pakistanis wounded in the attack, was working at a barbershop near the bathhouse when the blast knocked him to the ground.

"I don't know who carried out this attack, but when I opened my eyes, I found myself in a vehicle," the boy said through swollen lips from his hospital bed in Chaman, the nearby Pakistani town where he was brought after initial treatment in Afghanistan. Bandages covered the wounds on his face and head.

President Hamid Karzai, whose government has been battling the Taliban while trying to bring them to the negotiating table, denounced the bombing as an un-Islamic act.

While U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has claimed some success in the south, it has acknowledged that the gains are reversible. The Taliban continue to carry out suicide bombings and plant roadside bombs that kill Afghan and coalition forces, as well as civilians.

As NATO has poured troops into the south, the insurgents have expanded their operations to other parts of Afghanistan once considered relatively safe, such as the north.

The intensified effort is critical for the coalition. The U.S. plans to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July, and NATO combat troops are scheduled to pull out of the country by 2014, handing over responsibility for the country's security to Afghan forces.

Afghan officials are pushing to ready their forces ahead of the deadline, but face numerous problems, including high attrition rates, widespread illiteracy that hampers their ability to operate and training the force essentially from the ground-up.

An additional challenge for the Afghan and coalition effort is posed by the Taliban's ability to cross back and forth across the porous Afghan-Pakistan border, finding safe haven in Pakistan despite pressure from Kabul and NATO on Islamabad to crack down on the insurgents.

The Taliban leadership is believed to be based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, 60 miles (100 kilometers) east of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Afghan officials have said repeatedly that allowing the insurgents to operate from within Pakistan is a threat to both countries.

The latest NATO deaths raised to nine the number of coalition forces killed this year and marked a grim start to 2011 for the forces. Last year, 702 NATO service members were killed, the deadliest year for the international force in Afghanistan.

Coalition officials estimate Taliban's numbers at 25,000 _ roughly unchanged despite the international force's stepped-up offensive against insurgent leaders and rank-and-file fighters. The U.S. said this week it would send an additional 1,400 combat Marines to Afghanistan

Taiwan filmmakers stir a debate over documentary’s soul

Fact or fiction? Commercial or non-commercial? The development of Taiwan’s documentary is now at a crossroads.

In 2007, local director Yang Li-chou made a film on a poor indigenous woman who raised her seven grandchildren by growing peaches in Jiashih, Hsinchu County, because their parents had killed themselves.

The film, commissioned and produced by a business magazine, sparked controversy. Many people made donations because of her touching story, but critics slammed the commissioner for manipulation and exploitation of that aboriginal family to earn huge profits. Yang and his documentary gained instant notoriety from some negative media coverage.

This event stirred a debate over the spirit of documentary making among filmmakers.

Some agreed that a good touching story could attract a wider audience; others regarded documentaries as artworks which had given them a chance to express what they wanted to say in a very personal way; and still others thought documentaries should function as a tool for political change and social responsibility.

A freelance filmmaker Huang Chia-chun finished a documentary about a group of 30 teenagers in a Huliaen reform school who learned to ride a unicycle and realized their dream of cycling around Taiwan in summer of 2006. These children and teenagers from around the island came from broken families, experienced domestic violence, were from low-income families or were once charged with juvenile delinquency.

The film, They Are Flying released in 2008, won the Best Documentary Award of the 10th Taipei Film Festival in the same year.

"A good documentary should move the audience to tears. As my film touched more people’s hearts, a positive influence would be picked up by word of mouth,” Huang said, adding that he was also inspired by these teenagers’ courage and confidence.

Three years later after their dreams came true, eight of them went to college and four joined the military.

Huang plans to make another film on a group of fathers who have children with rare diseases. These men assembled an amateur rock and roll band to realize their childhood dreams and to encourage those who were in the same situation.

"Few documentaries in Taiwan deal with men’s emotions,” Huang said. “I want to document how these fathers handle and express their emotions in the face of setbacks and their children with rare diseases.”

John Grierson, a pioneering Scottish documentary maker who was often considered the father of British and Canadian documentary films, coined the term “documentary” to describe a non-fiction film in 1926. His definition of documentary as “creative treatment of actuality” has gained some acceptance in Taiwan.

Tsai Tsung-lung, an independent documentary filmmaker who used to work for the Public Television Service, took inspiration from this phrase. He has been working on social issues such as human rights, Taiwan’s foreign brides and rice-bran oil contaminated with PCB (a toxic chemical that may cause cancers and birth defects) in Taichung in 1979.

His film Surviving Evil, which recorded several victims of toxic rice-bran oil, was released in 2008 and chosen as a finalist in the documentary feature category of Earth Vision: The 17th Tokyo Global Environmental Film Festival in 2009.

His other film Formosa Homicide Chronicle 3: The Sweet Taste of Freedom centered on the Su Chien-ho case, also known in the international media as the “Hsichih Trio.” Su Chien-ho, Liu Bin-lang and Chuang Lin-hsun were accused in August 1991 of breaking into an apartment in Hsichih, Taipei County, in search of valuables. The three men were also indicted for double murder.

The Hsichih Trio, one of the most controversial legal cases in Taiwanese history, has taken a series of legal twists and turns between 1991 and 2010. Successive justice ministers from 1996 have refused to sign the paper to give the green light for their execution.

Grierson viewed documentaries as a mirror to society, setting up a criterion of documentary truth. Most domestic filmmakers, Tsai said, expected their works to reach that criterion, but objective truth seemed an impossible dream.

Mayaw Biho, an indigenous independent filmmaker, said the realities of aboriginal life did not exist in most Taiwan’s documentaries.

"The themes always center around soft issues such as singing, dancing and craftsmanship,” he said, adding that indigenous documentaries in Canada and New Zealand had addressed a variety of subjects including drug addiction, alcoholism and struggle against political oppression.

Mayaw has made a series of independent films from an indigenous perspective since graduation from college. In some cases, native peoples in Taiwan have been forced to change their names under different rulers.

"In our traditional culture, we only have first name, not last name. It was not until 1995 that we could finally use our real aboriginal names.”

But according to his film What’s Your Real Name in 2005, only 890 of 460,000 indigenous peoples resumed their traditional names.

To be commercial or not is another question that Taiwan’s documentary filmmakers face.

Since the power of business interests surpass the importance of social and public values, the new generation of filmmakers have been encouraged to shift towards a more entertainment-oriented, leisure-centered way of documentary-making. Some of them see commercial filmmaking as a necessary evil because it was hard to support themselves by making independent documentaries.

One outcome of this has been the marginalization of serious documentaries making them seem like an endangered species and receiving less attention from Taiwan’s mainstream media.

To market their documentaries, filmmakers may think how they should organize their productions like fiction films with the aim of seeking funds and attracting a wider audience.

In economic terms, only touching stories and high ratings could translate a film into ticket revenues.

Box office earnings depended on two audiences: the elderly and children, according to Tsai’s observation.

Huge box office successes, for example, included documentaries Jump! Boys (2005), The Last Rice Farmer (2005), My Football Summer (2006), Baseball Boys (2009) and Hip-Hop Storm (2010).

Jump! Boys and The Last Rice Farmers took in about NT$10 million. But a big hit did not mean filmmakers could make profits because they had to split their ticket sales with movie theaters.

Yen Lan-chuan and Juang Yi-tzeng, directors of The Last Rice Farmers, even borrowed money to promote their film.

In a financial statement released by Serenity Entertainment International, the total revenue of My Football Summer, shot by Yang Li-chou, was about NT$8.9 million. But the film distribution company spent more than NT$14 million on marketing.

Lin Tay-jou, a filmmaker and an associate professor at the Department of Visual Communication Design, National Yunlin University of Science and Technology, views documentary making as art creation.

In 2007, his film The Secret in the Satchel got invited to enter the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the world’s largest documentary film festival.

During the 11-day festival, Lin was impressed by a variety of documentary genres, such as docu-mation (a word combining documentary and animation), cross-media work, creative documentary, poetic documentary, interactive documentary, and mockumentary (also known as mock documentary).

He cited a poetic documentary, Paradise: Three Journeys In This World directed by a Finnish woman undergraduate Elina Hirvonen, as an example. This film about illegal immigrants from Africa to Europe in search of work won the first prize at the 2007 IDFA Student Competition.

Filmmakers, he said, could only document half the truth, not the whole objective reality, but they should try to dig up something from social issues with sincerity and through a poetic approach.