Title: China Heavyweight
Director: Yung Chang
Award-winning filmmaker Yung Chang drew praise for 2007’s “Up the Yangtze,” which focused on the many socioeconomically disadvantaged people impacted by the building of the massive Three Gorges Dam in Hubei. With his latest movie, he returns to China for another unexpectedly lyrical snapshot of that country’s rapidly changing economic landscape. A nonfiction look at the recruitment and training of young boxers for future hopeful Olympic glory, “China Heavyweight” is an unadorned, guileless work that starts slowly but accrues a deeper emotional hold and resonance as it winds on.
In not dissimilar fashion from “Pelotero: Ballplayer,” the recent documentary which examined teenage baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic, Chang’s film illustrates how sports are still one of the most widely pursued avenues out of outright familial poverty or working-class despair. The director follows Qi Moxiang, a former boxing star turned state coach, as he and his minions scour impoverished villages and small family farms across the rural Sichuan province, talking up the nobility of their sport, and the possibilities it brings. With a stable of young talent that makes it through local tournaments, Coach Qi and others then begin their years of work at national training centers, trying to sharpen teenage uncertainty and tribulation into resolve.
There’s a sort of studiously incurious tone and emotional remove to “China Heavyweight” that takes some time with which to become accustomed. This initially marks the movie as something of a state-sanctioned exercise in propagandistic celebration. Slowly, though, Chang reveals himself to be not a pliant cheerleader, but rather a shrewdly quiet observer. Through the movie, one gets a crystal-clear sense of China’s plan of stoked national pride; their plodding, rung-by-rung focus on provincial tournaments reminds one of videogame levels that must be cleared in order to advance to the next section of play.
And as much physical training as there obviously is, the approach of Coach Qi and his colleagues is also heavily invested in psychology, and laden with metaphor and simile. One trainer stresses that entering the ring isn’t like going to gallows, but is instead like music. “It’s your concert,” he says. Later, the same trainer compares his job to molding clay into pottery, and says that after his discovery and five years of such work his pupils are finally ready to move on to be fired, stamped and glazed.
These pupils, though, are of course teenagers, and so they’re both headstrong and fragile in all the normal ways one might expect. For some, this means there’s a strong desire to turn professional and start making money (not really the goal of this program, from the government’s perspective), even if that runs counter to adult advice. For others, it means a declining interest in boxing overall. “China Heavyweight” juggles all of these different personal stories — including Coach Qi planning a return to the ring — in beautiful fashion.
It certainly helps that the film is so cinematically lush. Through evocative framing and editing, Chang and director of photography Sun Shaoguang construct a document whose astute social commentary lies as much in its visual capture and rendering as its actual narrative inquiry. China is a land of both old and new, and the balanced tension between these two poles is in abundance almost everywhere, but especially in the searching eyes and souls of its young. Boxing — banned by Chairman Mao in 1959 for its violence and American roots, and only restored less than 25 years ago — may not be an escape or safe haven for most of these kids. But such widescale training programs opens minds to ideas and avenues other than just national glory.
NOTE: “China Heavyweight” opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall and the Laemmle Playhouse 7. For more information on the movie, visit Zeitgeist Films’ eponymous website.
Written by: Brent Simon