In his multiple-award-winning, first feature-length documentary Up the Yangtze, Yung Chang distilled the immense social engineering of China’s Three Gorges Dam down to two young people working on river cruise ships.
Now comes his much-anticipated sophomore film, China Heavyweight, hitting the Sundance Film Festival now, and Canadian screens this spring.
The Montreal-based filmmaker follows two young boxing hopefuls as they rise through the ranks, along with their coach, who is still fit enough to enter the ring.
Banned during the Mao regime, boxing is seen as both a symbol of the West and an escape from economic hardship. In this Chinese-Canadian co-production (the first documentary made jointly between the two countries, Chang says), the personal stories may seem small. But what they exemplify about a new China is huge. The Globe spoke to him recently by phone.
How are the boxing coaches so successful at attracting young children to their hard, bloody academy?
It’s amazing how arbitrary the recruitment process is. It wasn’t until later that I got a sense that maybe, especially through the coach, there was some life lesson being taught to these kids. But the process of the recruitment is so arbitrary – going around and asking kids to throw punches.
Essentially, the reason coaches at this boxing school have been so successful [at winning]is that they are at a higher altitude in the mountains of south-central China. The [kids]they recruit are mostly from tobacco families. You’ll notice in the scene that the master asks how long it takes a student to walk to school. That’s one of the traits they look for. If it takes two hours, then you’ve got a certain body type and big lungs and potentially the endurance to make a boxer.
The coaches promise the kids a chance to see the world, to rise above a life on the farm. Surely it takes more than a vague promise to convince them?
There’s an allure of the quick fix, to reach to the heights of success and finding the fast track. On the surface, boxing looks like it can offer that. These kids are growing up in a relatively poor county, only with a population of 300,000, only the size of Oshawa [Ont.] where I was born. There’s access to the Internet, and you look at the way the kids dress. They have fancy Nike outfits and shiny shoes even in the [tobacco]fields.
So if you quit the boxing program, it’s essentially back to the farm?
There’s no other option, unless you have parents with a little more money than other parents. That’s why the stakes are so high.
This sense of do-or-die exists in so many areas of contemporary Chinese life. Why did you settle on boxing as your subject?
It was banned for many reasons in 1959, the mostly striking being that it was considered too capitalist, too violent, too Western. It was banned up to 1987 at the time when reform was happening in China, and the fledgling sport began to take hold around the country, partly because of nationalistic ideas for Olympic medals.
It really comes down to the essential question: Who are you fighting for? For Chinese, you’re fighting for the country. That’s why they groom these young students and recruit them and put them through the amateur circuit, leading to the Olympics. But boxing is not necessarily a sport for the collective. It’s about the individual. And I found that really fascinating. Here you have a country raised in collectivism, communism. And then you focus in on this sport where the question really is whether you are fighting for yourself. I thought that was an interesting way to explore a concept of contemporary China that is emerging right now.
And for you, with the success of Up the Yangtze, did you feel heavy expectations for this second film?
Certainly there’s always that pressure to one-up the first film. And I guess the common answer would be just to not let that affect you. But what helped me through the process of getting around that curse was that the production of this film was so special. We were able to shoot without any hindrance, with a very collaborative little town and subjects that wanted to make this together with us. It was so joyous and in the end very emotional. Because the film is so dramatic, you get very close to the subjects.
This interview has been condensed and edited.