Access means everything to a documentary, but "all-access" as defined by professional sports organizations comes with innumerable caveats and official gatekeepers. Profiles of athletes are common newspaper and magazine fodder, but save for the occasional hiccup when something candid actually sneaks into print, the stories are all spun in advance, fed to a cowed media by well-rehearsed athletes. With their fawning documentary Year Of The Yao, directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo unreflectively buy into the spin on charismatic 7'6" basketball center Yao Ming, but on a certain level, who can blame them? Few athletes in recent years have captured the popular imagination like Yao, a self-effacing giant who came from China bearing the impossible expectations of Houston Rockets fans, who wanted immediate production from their #1 draft choice, and the billion-plus back home, who counted on him to represent their country well. To say he handled himself well, on and off the court, would be a massive understatement.
Chronicling the star's fabled 2002-2003 rookie season, Year Of The Yao stretches the format of a typical ESPN-style profile to feature length, padding out "candid" man-about-town footage with highlights of Yao's hardwood exploits. As he arrives in Houston on a wave of hype, the 22-year-old Yao immediately clings to his ever-present rookie translator Colin Pine, who not only helps him bridge the language barrier, but eases the inevitable culture shock. Though the two are virtually inseparable during the season, Yao proves savvier and more adaptable than anyone might have predicted, showing off a deadpan sense of humor during press conferences and carrying himself with a humility that's rare in the NBA. With the Rockets out of the playoff hunt, the film hangs on Yao's first confrontation with the league's most dominant center, Shaquille O'Neal, whose forceful presence underneath the basket was counterbalanced nicely by Yao's finesse game.
Year Of The Yao treads lightly on the ugly side of merging foreign cultures, from innocuous promotional events like "Fortune Cookie Night" to comments that stretch the bounds of political correctness. Yao handles it all with characteristic grace and humor, but a more probing documentary might have used the opportunity to examine the ways in which Americans deal with outsiders. A simple scene in which Yao visits a Taco Bell for the first time has the estranging quality of a Jim Jarmusch comedy, offering a hint of what might have been if Stern and Del Deo had (or even cared to have) genuine access to their subject. Though undeniably rousing, Year Of The Yao has been so thoroughly predigested that any real revelations are impossible to come by.