China Heavyweight: A Boxing Movie About China (And No Heavyweights)
In the county of Huili, Mohammad Ali and Confucius appear to walk hand in hand. New trainees, straight from the China’s provincial farmland, get the opportunity to become like the boxing legends of yore. It’s a typical sports story, which would be entirely unremarkable, except for its cultural fusion and the exquisite cinematography.
China Heavyweight, a new documentary from Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang, showcases China’s return to boxing, viewed from the eyes of young hopefuls in the earthy Sichuan province. The return comes after a thirty year ban, which disappeared with much of the old communist doctrine. As the economy flourished, suddenly a violent, highly competitive sport just seemed to fit with the new ideology. Time to refine the population from raw material down to valued product. Only now does that shift trickle down to students Miao Yunfei, He Zhongli and their coach, Qi Moxiang.
The film starts with their discovery in a creaky middle school, which looks almost random. The long-time professional Qi asks students to punch wildly, and somehow decides that these select boys (and indeed girls too) have the right stuff. They go through rigorous training as the coach, trying to bring attention to these fighters, decides to fight the current Pacific champion from Japan.
As mentioned, in terms of plot and events, it’s not hard to guess what happens next. It’s about a tired coach and his students; we’ve all seen this film a thousand times if only in fiction. Yet, the documentary is specifically about boxing in China. This complex reality becomes jarringly clear during a good luck visit to a Buddhist temple. A monk there calls the sport brutal, and wonders why anyone would play it. The boxing program director corrects him.
Boxing teaches us about respect and proper behaviour, he says. It reinforces Confucian beliefs.
Little things like that distance China Heavyweight from its counterparts, making the familiar just different enough that the movie seems to be cultural as much as it is sport.
Though, sport is still an important part of the drama. The camera sticks close during their training, always in the early morning or late at night. The glare of dawn is a common sight as is abject darkness. Long shots are dedicated to Yunfei, Zhongli and others attacking the lens with their machine-gun fists. Shrouded by night, these fighters look stuck in their personal universe. Once they start battling in tournaments, there are no ‘action scenes’ as such. They’re continuations of the story as the camera is more interested in their mental state than it is the blow by blow match.
“I think for this film we were going for a, very claustrophobic, very close camera that was right next to the subject, almost in their mind,” says director Yung Chang. This claustrophobia leads to a direct relationship between the film and its subject that treads a precarious line.
Sometimes the closeness is endearing, as it shows coach Qi living underneath the stadium stairs and later on, visiting family, who all tease him for his zero-salary job and inability to marry.
Yet, when Yunfei tells his mother that he’s going to a big city training camp, Chang backs off. Yunfei’s mother leaves the room in a combination of sadness and anger. So instead he lingers with Yunfei and his father and uncle, who try to comfort the boy.
“As a documentary filmmaker, you’re negotiating a relationship that can be too intimate,” says Chang.
Luckily, all this manoeuvring pays off. The cinematography feels invested in its subjects from beginning to end, even if it is emotionally distant at times.
For all its curiosities, China Heavyweight is weakest when it comes to actual narrative. The storylines don’t quite mesh as it should, and there’s no real resolution. You see the end coming, but are left with so many questions. Zhongli and Yunfei are never definitively a success. They progress and part ways, which is the closed thing to an end they have. Furthermore, Coach Qi’s big match is built to be the climax, but we don’t see his personal development beyond running and punching.
It’s hard to lay these faults at the foot of the director. These are people and there are limits in what you can show. Qi is a quiet man. He’s not keeping anything from Chang that he doesn’t keep from the rest of the world. Plus, Chang has a limited budget. He’s not PBS, and can accidentally spend eight years on a single topic. Personally, I came close to an orientalist fascination with this film. I’ve never cared about boxing until I saw it in this cultural context, which is why it left me with a strong impression. China Heavyweight does well with what it has, even if what it has is lacking.
After the film, Coach Qi wandered to a Q&A, weary-eyed, and hiding in a big hoodie. Someone asks him about the girls on the boxing team (who evaporate halfway through the film).
“I can’t wait for the end of these 16 days (here),” he mumbled through a translator. “I’m in a rush to go back and train them.”