MEETING THE GIANT (PG)
104 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***
The story: When China teenager Chen Hang (Delvin Goh) joins Junhui's (Chua Seng Jin) secondary school basketball team, he is ostracised for being bigger-sized - and for being good at the game. He later joins a professional team which Junhui's father manages. As Junhui tags along for their training sessions, he witnesses firsthand the challenges faced by the foreign import players such as Xiaodi (Ian Fang) and Shaohua (Michael Lee).
The giant of the title refers to the towering Chen Hang.
When the China national joins a local basketball team, he is mockingly called Yao Ming, China's most famous basketballer who played for Houston Rockets in the United States from 1997 to 2011.
His arrival ignites the jealousy of the other team members and leads to complaints from a parent about foreign imports squeezing out local talent.
The script by first-time director Tay Ping Hui, producer Zhu Houren (credited as Jack Choo) and writer-host Danny Yeo takes inspiration from the debate that has been brewing in Singapore over the influx of immigrants.
But instead of being an "issues" film which wrestles with this one topic, Meeting The Giant is an empathetic sports drama which manages to sidestep the usual cliches of the genre.
Rather than a hoary showdown competition, the climactic game is one in which the individual fates of the players are decided.
Admittedly, one problem with having an entire team of players is that there is not enough screen time for everyone to make an impression.
Still, a few actors manage to make their characters stand out, from Goh's gentle giant Chen Hang to Lee's driven captain Shaohua to Fang's childish Xiaodi.
The film also points out the host of sacrifices and challenges they have to confront at their young age: homesickness, the pressures of having to perform as well as having to earn their keep.
In contrast, Junhui has the luxury of lounging around playing video games in his free time.
But as he trains with the China players, his initial resistance to the idea of foreign imports melts away as they become his friends. As Harper Lee wrote in the classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), you cannot understand a person "until you climb into his skin and walk around in it".
Some of the scenes here feel a little heavy-handed, such as the grand send-off for Hang when he leaves home for Singapore. But Tay also shows that he can tell a thoughtful story as well as put together some energetically choreographed sequences conveying the excitement of a basketball game.
The film does not provide any direct answers to the us-versus-them debate but it does undercut the question. With the exception of Lee and Fang, whoare from China, all the China players are convincingly played by Singaporeans (albeit with dubbing since nothing would betray their identity faster than a Singaporean accent).
It turns out that the distinction between "us" and "them" is blurrer than a photograph on Instagram.