Near the start of Yung Chang’s new film China Heavyweight, we are introduced to Master Zhao Zhong, who was among the first people to become a boxing coach after China lifted the ban on the sport in 1986. (The ban was imposed by former Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong in 1959 upon the belief that the sport shared characteristics with capitalism.) Each year, Zhong travels to schools throughout the Chinese countryside looking for fresh new recruits to train at one of the country’s numerous boxing camps in hopes they will ascend to the national team and maybe even compete in the Olympics.
In one scene, Master Zhao delivers a fervid speech to a group of perplexed rural schoolgirls, barely tweens, with a very grown-up call to duty: “If you make the provincial team you’ll be China’s official athletes,” he says. “You’ll be the country’s people. Don’t train hard, and you’ll be back home farming. Then you’re no one but your mom’s kid.”
The monologue instantly conjures thoughts of the Chinese gymnastic team’s domination at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the ensuing international criticism over the rigorous training camps that produced those young champions. China Heavyweight does not investigate the rights or wrongs of China’s practice of separating youngsters from their families and traditions to become super athletes, but instead takes an observational approach (as the best verité films generally do) without imposing judgment.
The film gracefully interweaves the stories of two young trainees and their mentor, Coach Qi. As they approach graduation, the boys struggle to choose which path they will take: join the national team or fight professionally. Meanwhile, Coach Qi yearns to make a comeback after years away from the competitive ring. For all three, within the historical and cultural context of modern-day China, the stakes are very high.
But while China Heavyweight employs some of the gritty aesthetics, camera moves and other hints of classics like Rocky, Million Dollar Baby and Girlfight, it doesn’t adhere to the cliché small-time-boxer-gets-the-chanceto-prove-him/herself-in-the-big-leagues trajectory. Glory isn’t the ultimate payoff in China Heavyweight and thus, the film delivers a much stronger punch. In fact, it was easily my favourite film at Sundance this year—a masterpiece of verité filmmaking.
“There’s a little Rocky in there,” Chang admits. “You can’t avoid some of the tropes of boxing films, and I love them. That’s why boxing is a genre. There’s been over 100 movies made about boxing, and I think that’s because there’s a real connection to the idea of the individual facing adversity. I recently learned that the word agony comes from [the Greek word] agon, which means contest, and I think that’s part of boxing. Agony and self-destruction, crisis—that’s what boxing is about and that’s what drama’s about.
“Coach Qi really represents this father figure or brother figure to all these kids that he adopts, more or less,” says Chang. “We all have mentors, coaches, teachers in our lives that I think influence you deeply. More so than your parents sometimes. I remember, in fact, [film producer] Nick de Pencier’s cousin, Adam de Pencier, was my teacher in high school and he turned me on to George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and The Moon and Sixpence, Somerset Maugham’s book about Gauguin, and those really changed my life.
“The kids come to this school, the boxing school, and they’re country bumpkins; they don’t know anything about the world. He teaches it to them. The lesson those kids take away with them is a deeper sense of humanity. I think the kids discover a way that is much more relevant than having just a Rocky moment.”
What struck me about how boxing is portrayed in China Heavyweight is that despite the punishing workouts and bloody noses, there’s a strong sense of family rather than competition engendered between the children and their mentors. The balance of discipline and sensitivity employed in their guidance seems healthy, and the students exhibit an integrity virtually non-existent in our North American culture. To paraphrase one of the young men in the film, winning is not necessarily the ultimate reward, it’s the lessons learned along the way.
For Chang, making the film and interacting with his subjects was in itself a learning experience. “I think you take away something with every film,” he says. “The biggest thing I took away was this notion of perseverance. In many ways the film is sort of a cautionary tale about survival and not to take the fast track. China is in such a rush to modernization that I think this film is in some ways a look at how to take a breath and don’t forget the long path is the best path in the end to success. And failure is part of the equation too.”