All words: Toni Tileva
China Heavyweight, a documentary by Yung Chang [Up The Yangtze], is a glimpse into the burgeoning popularity of boxing, a sport that had been banned by Mao. While the extensive footage of boxing training harkens a bit to other underdog stories like The Boxer and other recognizable sports tropes, China Heavyweight is very firmly grounded in its setting and provides an interesting look into an unfamiliar social landscape.
Set at a boxing school in the Sichuan province, the film follows two teenagers, Miao Yunfei and He Zongli. Their trainer is Qi Moxiang, a former professional boxer who still harbors dreams of returning to the ring despite being in his thirties. Without offering any extra commentary, it takes us deeply into the world of Confucianism-informed Asian culture through the eyes of the two teenagers and their interaction with their parents. While boxing is portrayed as a way out of their parents’ very hard life of being a tobacco farmer, we get the sense that boxing is also something that is not done for personal glory but for the greater community. The coaches frequently reference that boxing is what elevates you from your “Mother’s son” to a “son of the people.” Lofty ideals like bringing pride to your family and community, brushing shoulders with the very Confucian values of humility and honoring your elders.
“We have to be modest at all times,” repeats the father of one of the boys while remarking that he had heard people say his son is a great boxer. Yunfei Mao idolizes Mike Tyson and “the great ambience and the grand entrance” of professional boxing, yet respects his parents enough to give up his dream. China Heavyweight is also a poignant look into the highs-and-lows of a very brutal sport and the paternal relationship between the coaches and the boxers. “You must persevere because I believe in you,” says Qi to his young charge, yet when the talented boxer must leave training, he offers lifelong help to him, regardless of the loss to the school.
China Heavyweight is also interesting in its portrayal of how boxing fits within a very unfamiliar to the West social milieu. We are offered brief glimpses into political leaders taking an interest in the goings-on from the perspective of recruiting successful Olympics athletes. Much more interestingly, however, the sport appears to have a tremendous mass appeal despite its very Western origin. The film does not really explore that aspect much, instead focusing on the fighters themselves, but it would have certainly added much value. Another loss is we do not learn much about the teenage girls that are also recruited into these boxing schools and who undergo similar training. There was a story there that remained untold.
Ultimately, a very universal, non-Western sentiment emerges from China Heavyweight. Boxing is about “not being afraid of losing” and “the more you fail, the more courageous you become.” The very non-goal/non-individual-focused ethos makes this documentary a refreshing departure from other pugilistic films and one definitely worth seeing, especially with its sweeping, beautiful shots of the mountain areas of China and subdued cinema-verite style. While the pacing drags at times, there is enough to the premise and its setting to make it a film worth checking out.