There are no heavyweight boxers in China Heavyweight, the new film from Yung Chang, the Canadian documentary filmmaker behind the much-awarded 2007 debut film Up the Yangtze. Both film titles are a kind of word play, an invitation to thinking twice about a powerful nation caught in a double-think.
Up the Yangtze was about people who were up the creek, the peasant population displaced by China's relentless race to progress with the creation of the world's largest hydropower facility, the Three Gorges Dam. The weight in China Heavyweight is the burden of conflicting expectations, the push toward modernization against the traditional pull of traditional Confucian modesty and filial piety.
As with his previous film, director Chang nurses a compelling drama from a multilayered cultural reality, at once intimate and unfathomably large in implications. In his sophomore film, Chang, once again, shows himself to be one of our great young cinéma-vérité directors, with "our" meaning, not just belonging to Canada, but to the world.
The immediate subject is boxing, perhaps the most individual of competitive sports. In the late 1950s, Chairman Mao banned boxing as too Western and brutal. After the Cultural Revolution, his successors began to believe that competition might be as useful in developing sport as it was for the economy. Finally, in the late eighties, boxing was made legal again and taught in schools, such as the one in Huili County in the southwestern Sichuan province, where China Heavyweight takes place.
Opening scenes take us to this outpost, through the eyes of two boxing talent scouts, the bearded, philosophical program director, Zhao Zhong, and former professional boxer, Coach Qi Moxiang. The men line up the boys and girls, asking each to announce their year of birth and try a few practice punches, while they do their recruitment talk. If they are chosen for the program, declares Zhao, the boys and girls may rise to the provincial and national levels, even to Olympic glory where they will belong to all the people. If not, they'll never be more than "your mother's child."
The odds here look worse than in Steve James's basketball movie, Hoop Dreams: Failure here means not just anonymity but a lifetime of drudgery working on a tobacco plot as their parents do, rising before sun-up and finishing after dark.
Coach Qi, who has decided to dedicate his life to coaching, is a charismatic figure, but he doesn't coddle his young fighters. In an early scene, a small boy gets his nose bloodied in a sparring round. Instead of offering sympathy, the coach reprimands him sharply for failing to keep his head down and sends him to wash his face.
Out of the ranks of the many, two 19-year-old boys show talent. Yunfei Miao, the coaches agree, has an advantage: He's cocky, in love with the attention of the ring and anxious to become a boxing "king" like Mike Tyson and Mohammed Ali. His friend is the quiet, sensitive He Zhongli, who is plagued by doubts. The training is relentless, the payoff questionable.
In some extraordinarily intimate family scenes, we experience the heart of his dilemma. His mother, back from a day in the fields, cries at the dinner table, suffering at the sight of her son bruised and cut from fighting. The father consoles him: Women cry because they can't express themselves, he says. Do what you must, he says, but the important thing is to be modest at all times.
With variations, we see the family scene repeated at the other men's homes. In Miao's home, his mother bitterly questions the years he has spent training instead of getting a useful education that might save him from the life she must lead. Even Coach Qi, single at 38, living with his mother, can't escape his matriarch's skepticism.
Before they head off to the provincial tournament, Coach Qi and Zhao visit a monastery for some good luck prayers. The monk is gently dubious. Boxing, he says, has always seemed cruel to him. On the contrary, says Zhao, boxing teaches the values of restraint. Yet the cultural contradictions between the Western sport and the Chinese philosophy are striking: In China Heavyweight, a boxing coach advises the sensitive He that a background in boxing prepares you for a career in the world – not in how to win, but how to deal with loss.
After introducing the useful narrative contrast of these two near-brothers on their diverging paths, the film brings forth a new narrative worthy of a Rocky movie. Coach Qi, determined to provide a role model for his students, decides to fight professionally again. Five years away from boxing, of smoking, occasionally getting drunk with friends, he has decided to subject himself to the rigours of the ring once again in the hopes of a redemptive comeback in a major international tournament. The culminating match is fraught with nationalistic fervour: His younger, fitter rival is a Japanese champion.
In addition to the intimate drama, we have scenes providing the broader context – monotonous speeches of government officials sounding remarkably like capitalistic corporate cheerleaders. Later, a Western boxing promoter, pandering to the hometown crowd, declares a bright future for the fight game in Asia, bizarrely pointing out that Huili County was also the place where Mao began his famous long march.
When the ring wars are ended, school girls, cheeks pink in the cold, stand in the school yard giggling as their principal drones on about the glories of socialism and sport. Later, the girls and boys line up in the school yard and punch the hands of the boxing recruiters, hoping to be chosen to fight, instead of enduring a life of drudgery and being nothing more than their mothers' children.
- Directed by Yung Chang
- With He Zongli, Miao Yunfei and Qi Moxiang
- Classification: G
- 4 stars