Canadian director Yung Chang likes to get close to his subjects in a film. How close? When making his new documentary, China Heavyweight, about a boxing school in Sichuan, China, two lenses were accidentally smashed by the students' fists.
Since most of the film was shot on a basic SLR camera, it was a small price to pay for authenticity. In truth, the most bruising moments in Chang's film aren't in the boxing ring but in the family circle, or between friends. A son tells his disappointed and angry mother that he's leaving to try his luck as a professional boxer. Later, his friend makes a bittersweet late-night phone call, and leaves a message about how their lives have diverged.
Uncannily, the camera seems to be there to witness each life-changing decision and only in retrospect does the viewer ask: How did the filmmaker know? How did he do it?
I first met Chang five years ago at the Sundance Film Festival, a tall, calm 30-year-old man with a puckish sense of humour, an ear-flap hat and an improbable Ronald Colman mustache (he grew it to look more mature). He had just made his debut feature film, Up the Yangtze, about two young people, a boy and a girl from different backgrounds, working on a tourist boat on China's Yangtze River, visiting the sites that would soon be put underwater by the Three Gorges hydro-electric project.
It was instantly acclaimed, a real-life companion piece to the fictional films of acclaimed sixth-generation Chinese film director Jia Zhangke, chronicling lives caught in the moral maelstrom of China's race to modernization. Up the Yangtze landed a distribution deal, earned a rave review in Variety and received a rash of award nominations.
But things don't move quickly in the documentary world, even when you have a hit. In between, Chang, who works with the politically oriented EyeSteelFilm company in Montreal, helped edit Fan Lixin's acclaimed Last Train Home, another story of China, both intimate and vast.
Last week, at Toronto's Hoc Docs Festival, I interviewed Chang on stage, accompanied by his Chinese producer Yi Han and Coach Qi Moxiang from the film. Watching China Heavyweight on the big screen, it seemed more clear than ever that Chang is a dramatic director who just happens to be working in reality. China Heavyweight is a "movie movie," an experience that establishes contrasting characters and environments, moves between individual and social moments, with a dramatist's eye for the careful release of information and emotion.
Later, Chang spoke by telephone from Montreal. In a world of ugly comic reality-television and quickie celebrity docs, Chang sees himself as a throwback to the lofty traditions of cinéma vérité, not simply to record reality but to use the camera as a device for distilling human interactions.
He's a big fan of the late Allan King ( A Married Couple, Warrendale) with his use of "actuality cinema," sifting the critical moments from the complicated rubble of daily life. The idea, says Chang, is not trying to influence events but to build a relationship with the subjects and let the subjects know: "We want to be there when it happens."
Chang spent a year working on China Heavyweight, hanging out with the people involved even on non-shooting days, offering his subjects, in exchange for their time, nothing more than a sympathetic ear and a camera as a mirror to their lives. He insists he's no journalist, often preferring to cross the "subject buffer" to develop friendships with the people who he films, even when it hurts.
"It's very visceral, so painful at times I was sometimes in tears making this film," he says. "I do not walk away when it's done. There's always a link to go back, a connection with the subjects. With China Heavyweight, we were raising money for the school, selling crafts made by the girl students. But inevitably, also a slow detachment over time. It's like a break-up."
He agrees that he's strongly conscious of dramatic form. On Up the Yangtze, he and his cinematographer had a motto: "cinema, not documentary." His films are more about narrative than information, though if he can find the emotional connection, the informational layers can be integrated more easily.
" Up the Yangtze was my disaster film. China Heavyweight was my action film," he says.
He describes his upcoming film, The Fruit Hunters (a documentary about the quest for fruit diversity, based on his friend Adam Gollner's book), as "my slapstick comedy."
More specifically, he sees China Heavyweight as a morality tale with Coach Qi as the hero of his story: A former professional boxer goes back in the ring as a model to his students, in memory of his late father, for honour and integrity. China, as a country, is also a newly crowned swaggering heavyweight reaching for its "golden belt," says, Chang, but it needs to prepare for the long path ahead. The film's alternate Chinese title is To Be Tried a Thousand Times.
Perhaps the reason that Chang instinctively shapes reality in movie terms goes back to his youth, and the lonely times he spent hiding out in movie theatres. Growing up in Whitby, Ont., he was one of two kids of colour in his class. (The other was an Indian-Canadian friend, and somehow his classmates got the idea they were siblings.)
The year he turned 13, in 1989, was a critical one: He was sent to Toronto's prestigious Upper Canada College as a boarding student. It was also the year he joined the Toronto protests against the Chinese government's brutal crackdown at Tiananmen Square.
Neither at home with the school's Canadian-born privileged students, nor the boarding students from Hong Kong, he was a shy kid who used the movies as a refuge. He hit "a kind of identity crisis around 16." But he found inspiration from novelist and playwright Frank Chin, and his 1991 coming-of-age novel Donald Duk.
Chin is a pointed critic of what he considers false Chinese-American culture, questioning the traditional Chinese stories used by such novelists as Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. Following the writer's lead, Chang developed an interest in learning more about the homeland his parents had left behind, taking up the Mandarin lessons he had dropped in his childhood and immersing himself in Chinese cinema.
After studying film at Montreal's Concordia University, Chang made his first short (40-minute) documentary with the National Film Board called Earth to Mouth, about a Chinese market garden outside Toronto.
More unusually, after graduating from Concordia, he took out a loan to move to New York, to study the Meisner technique at New York's Neighbourhood Playhouse School of the Theatre for a year and a half. A cousin of Method acting, Sanford Meisner's training emphasizes actors honing their skills in communication and improvisation. Chang never wanted to act, but felt he needed to learn the language of performance, and he has used those techniques to talk to his documentary subjects.
"The method is very simple and hard," says Chang. "It teaches you how to listen. Just to learn how to listen and be open to the emotional pace of a conversation, to let someone explore an idea without interrupting. You don't have to say too much."
Inevitably, it seems Chang will make a fictional film, of some sort, though he sees himself, nowadays, "as someone whose comfort zone is floating between worlds, between Canada and China, for example."
He has written a treatment for a comic travel movie about a Taiwan wedding photographer working in mainland China, shooting the "super-kitsch" staged photographs that are so popular there. But there's a lot that he prefers to leave open to chance.
"I'm not sure if I'll work with actors or non-professionals, or how much of a script we'll have. It's more interesting not knowing how the story is going to come out."