Review: ‘Never Say Never’ (2023), starring Wang Baoqiang, Chen Yong Sheng and Shi Peng Yuan

August 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Wang Baoqiang in “Never Say Never” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Distribution)

“Never Say Never” (2023)

Directed by Wang Baoqiang

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from approximately 2001 to 2017, in unnamed cities in China, the dramatic film “Never Say Never” (inspired by real events) features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with a few white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former boxing champ trains orphaned boys between the ages of 7 and 11 to be mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighters, but he gets arrested for child abuse after a filmed video of one of the cage fights goes viral.

Culture Audience: “Never Say Never” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching sports dramas based on true stories and don’t mind if the movie looks a one-sided and often-unrealistic showcase for questionable actions.

Wang Baoqiang (standing in the center) in “Never Say Never” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Distribution)

“Never Say Never” is an off-kilter drama that clumsily tries to mix grit with sentimentality. The movie never does a credible job of justifying exploitation of childen who are forced to train as MMA fighters. The movie is based on true events but often looks very phony.

Directed by Wang Baoqiang (who stars in the movie and who co-wrote the “Never Say Never” screenplay with Qi Qi), “Never Say Never” (also known as “Octagonal”) takes place from approximately 2001 to 2017, with a lot of jumping around in the timeline. The movie opens by showing a video of two boys, who are about 7 or 8 years old, who are doing MMA fighting in public in a cage. Someone has filmed this disturbing fight, and the video has gone viral.

The next scene shows that in 2011, an adult has been arrested for being responsible for this fight, and he is being held in an interrogation room for questioning. His name is Xiang Tenghui (played by Wang), and he is a 43-year-old former boxing champ. Tenghui is very defensive about this viral video that has gotten him in trouble. He wants to know who filmed the video. He also defensively says that the video is “old” and was taken many years ago.

The movie then flashes back to 2001. Tenghui is going through rough times. He operates a small business and hasn’t been able to pay his workers for the past six months. Tenghui has been so financially desperate, he sold all of his boxing medals to a local businessman named Wang Feng (played by Wang Xun), who also loaned money to Tenghui and wants the loan repaid.

One day, Tenghui is attacked by a group of boys who rob him and a colleague. The attack leaves both men with head injuries, but the injuries aren’t serious enough for them to need professional medical treatment. Tenghui tracks down some of these boys and finds out that they’re homeless orphans. Feng is the one who actually gives Tenghui the idea to take these boys and train them to become MMA fighters, as a way for Tenghui to make money off of them.

It isn’t long before Tenghui has assembled a group of seven or eight boys to be in his “fight club.” Tenghui gives them shelter and food (there’s a scene showing how hungry the children are by how fast they eat the food), but he also puts them through rigorous and cruel physical training (including making them wear chains) in a remote country area. The movie tries to make it look like Tenghi is building the boys’ characters and physical strength, but it’s really a form of child abuse.

There is no good reason to train children in this age group (7 to 11 years old) to get the types of bloody, bone-breaking injuries that are common in MMA fighting. Tenghui has a reason though: greed. “Never Say Never” constantly tries to make Tenghui look like a “rescuer” for taking these boys off of the streets and giving them a “purpose” in life. But surely, he could have taught them other skills that would be more productive for their lives, not MMA fighting that is appropriate for teenagers and adults.

Another reason why this type of “training” is abusive is that these kids really had no choice. The only person who was giving them shelter and regular meals was the same person forcing them to go through this “training” that is the very definition of child endangerment. Children this young cannot legally consent, which is why Tenghui chose vulnerable orphans.

“Never Say Never” makes all of these orphans fairly generic except for three. Wang Jingfu (played by Xiao Yang as a teenager and adult) is the tallest and is the most problematic, right from the start, because of his bad attitude. It comes as no surprise that he eventually ends up in jail as a teenager.

The other two orphan characters who stand out are brothers Su Mu (played by Shi Peng Yuan as a teenager and young adult) and Ma Hu (played by Chen Yong Sheng as a teenager and young adult), who are stereotypical opposites. Mu is the “obedient” brother. Hu is the “rebellious” brother. They have a sister (played by Zhang Yi Tong) who’s about 10 years than Ma and Hu. She knew about their MMA training when Mu and Hu were children. She approved of it because she was a single mother who couldn’t afford to take care of Mu and Hu at the time.

The movie has back-and-forth repetition in showing the awful training that the boys were forced to endure and showing which ones pursued careers in professional MMA fighting as adults. It’s very off-putting how “Never Say Never” relentlessly pushes an agenda that Tenghui was a “hero” who showed “tough love” to these kids. The child abuse shown in the movie is bad enough, which means in real life, the abuse was probably worse.

“Never Say Never” also tries to gloss over the fact that Tenghui kept the money that he made off of these kids when they were under his guardianship. There is no mention of a trust fund that he set aside for any of them. The acting in “Never Say Never” is very mediocre, while the movie’s direction is horrifically unfocused. There’s a big MMA match that serves as the movie’s dramatic climax, but it all looks like a fake spectacle and a pathetic attempt to get viewers to forget the child abuse that was shown in the movie and can’t be unseen.

China Lion Distribution released “Never Say Never” in select U.S. cinemas on July 28, 2023. The movie was released in China on July 27, 2023, with a wider expansion in China on August 3, 2023.

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