An intimate documentary about American-style boxing might seem like a departure for director Yung Chang, who won renown for his haunting documentary Up the Yangtze (08), about the epochal changes being wrought on rural China by the controversial Three Gorges Dam Project, as seen through the eyes of two young cruise-ship workers. China Heavyweight, Chang’s second feature, is a quieter, more contained, and deeply personal story, but it has just as much weight in its ability to tap into greater truths about China's changing cultural climate and identity.
The film, which competed at Sundance this past January in the World Documentary section, follows two young boxers from the sticks and their coach as each sets out in pursuit of their boxing dreams. Qi Moxiang, the coach, is a former member of China’s national boxing team and the first Chinese boxer to turn pro. He returned to the rural Huili province in 2004 to begin coaching young boxers (for free), among them the film’s two student subjects, Miao Yunfei and He Zongli. Familiar storylines ensue: disapproval from the boys’ hard-working farming families, and the usual ups and downs that come with training for a sometimes unforgiving sport. Miao, the more competitive of the two, speaks of his thirst for glory and his desire to become a “boxing king” so that he can leave behind his isolated country life, while He, introverted and less confident, works with quiet intensity toward his goals. All the while, we watch how the sacrifices coach Qi continues to make for boxing take a toll on his personal life, most memorably at a dinner during which he tears up after his friends playfully say that he should start a family and more seriously that he has been neglecting his friendships.
In his return to China after Up the Yangtze, the Toronto-based Chang skillfully crafts another visually intriguing documentary that is simultaneously a continuation of and departure from the mainstream of New Chinese Documentary. Chang, who is Chinese-Canadian, admits to being fascinated by both the American boxing movies and the Chinese martial arts movies that he watched as a child and clearly understands the way that the rules and philosophy of sports can often be analogous to life. China Heavyweight isn't just a story about boxing or about three individuals and their personal relationships to the sport, it's about the significance of a traditionally Western sport’s emergence in a changing Eastern culture—the philosophy of chasing a dream—and the way that the trajectory of this trio comes to represent the cultural shifts of a disappearing rural China.
Chang moves constantly between the social documentary tradition and the “sports film” in a mostly successful attempt to reconcile them. There is the customary boxing-film denouement: will the character win and experience triumph and elation (perhaps tinged with melancholy), or will they lose but feel pride and a personal victory for having tried their best? Will Coach Qi become a Raging Bull or a Cinderella Man? Perhaps there’s a future Rocky Balboa in the young Miao or He. The anticipation and excitement that comes with these questions is present here, but ultimately the film exceeds the generic parameters of the boxing film through its increasingly present elements of social commentary. Chang’s juxtaposition of the two boys’ respective desires to become boxing stars vs. team players, to leave the countryside vs. play for the provincial team, echo the cultural impact of an increasingly globalized China, in which national economic progress overshadows regional identity.
Above all Chang succeeds at what he does best: blending images of the masses with images of the intimate. In Up the Yangtze, the enormity of the dam project is set against upheaval at the individual level, much as Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home (Fan was an executive producer on China Heavyweight) conveyed a sense of both national scale and personal stakes. With his latest, Chang further develops his intimate shooting style, juxtaposing sometimes intrusive close-ups with carefully chosen establishing shots that situate his subjects within their specific contexts—the mist-covered fields of Huili, an empty boxing stadium, a schoolyard of children singing the national anthem in sync. Chang works within the philosophical framework of the world of boxing to paint a poignant and often incisive portrait of the evolving Chinese cultural landscape and the temptations and ambitions that come with change.