Using their fists on road to fame
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, July 20, 2012
The growth of Western-style boxing in China illustrates the paradoxes of that fast-changing society. It’s a foreign sport, once banned by Mao, that’s now cultivated as a source of national pride. Its brutality is unacceptable to Buddhism and Confucianism yet is increasingly appealing to young men (and women). And in a country that still professes socialism, it’s fiercely individualistic. There are no collective work groups in the boxing ring.
These are some of the conflicts explored in “China Heavyweight,” a new documentary by Sino-Canadian director Yung Chang. Shot over two years in mountainous Sichuan province, the movie follows a pair of aspiring boxers in their late teens, Miao Yunfei and He Zongli, and their coaches, Qi Moxiang and Zhao Zhong.
Chang’s previous documentary, “Up the Yangtze,” raised some of the same issues. But that film chronicled the voyage of a river cruise ship, thus revealing a wider range of Chinese society -- above and below decks.
Most of “China Heavyweight” is set in small, grubby villages whose youth have few options. They can stay and help their families grow tobacco, the principal local crop. They can move to the city and work in construction. Or maybe, just maybe, they can get rich as professional boxers.
In keeping with Maoist egalitarianism, Qi and Zhao coach girls as well as boys. But the director doesn’t spend much time with the female boxers and doesn’t show any who seem to take it very seriously. He concentrates on Miao, a Mike Tyson fan whose chances as a professional boxer are not rated highly by his coach or his mother. Ironically, Qi, who failed to qualify for the Olympics years before, seems to be ignoring his own advice to Miao when he decides in the film’s final chapter to attempt a comeback, this time as a pro.
The documentary is fluid, detailed and well photographed by Sun Shaoguang. There’s no narration, but the subjects reveal much with their choice of clothing: T-shirts and jackets emblazoned with such names as Nike, Celtics and Manchester United. Boxing, it seems, is a way for Chinese youth to be Western. Which may be why “China Heavyweight” ultimately focuses more on the universal theme of athletic ambition than on the specific challenge of punching a path out of a Chinese backwater.
Contains boxing violence and alcohol and cigarette use. In Sichuanese, Mandarin and English with Enlish subtitles.