Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: China Heavyweight

This vibrant documentary about young rural Chinese boxers has many of the hallmarks of greatness but ultimately keeps its subjects at too much of a remove to achieve it.

July 5, 2012

-By Chris Barsanti


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1352658-China_Heavyweight_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

This vibrant documentary about young rural Chinese boxers has many of the hallmarks of greatness but ultimately keeps its subjects at too much of a remove to achieve it.

Although the martial art that Westerners most associate China with is kung fu or one of its many variations, one of the most popular physical-contact sports in the country right now is Western-style boxing. Outlawed by Chariman Mao in 1959 as being too Western and too violent (a boxer died at a match in 1953), the sport was made legal again three decades later, and has been gaining ascendancy ever since. When China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, the nation took home a gold medal. Although a film about the popularity of this sport in the home of kung fu would seem destined to highlight the obvious cultural dissonances, director Yung Chang ( Up the Yangtze) does the right thing by focusing on the young and hopeful athletes for whom this tradition isn’t foreign at all.

Chang’s film has a loosely episodic arc that, like in Up the Yangtze, only gradually starts to peel back the layers on its major characters. Shot mostly in the region of Huili in Sichuan province, the film tracks slowly over the rich green landscape of foggy mountains and terraced fields of tobacco before getting down to the business of boxing, which is a serious thing in Huili. The primary school has a special boxing program, where the bearded master Zhao Zhong—who would radiate calm and wisdom even were it not for his philosophical pronouncements in conversation with a Buddhist monk—picks the most talented children of both genders to start training. (Some of the film’s most fascinating footage is of the nervous young schoolgirls learning to throw their first punches; unfortunately, Chang only follows the male boxers in any detail.) The coach, Qi Moxiang, is a toughened veteran in his late 30s who had been the country’s first professional boxer and now pines to return to the ring.

The two student boxers whom Chang follows don’t have much in common besides their promising talents. Miao Yunfei is brash and competitive, with all the confidence of a star but seemingly little of the arrogance. He Zongli is quiet and reserved, showing all the moody restlessness of the typical teenager. As the film, which was shot over 2009 to 2011, notches slowly along from one competition to the next, the question of Miao’s and He’s futures, hotly debated with their parents, hangs more pressingly over each of their scenes. Huili being isolated farmland with seemingly few job prospects besides growing tobacco for meager reward, it’s hard to deny the pull of either amateur championships or professional fame, though when the ever-nervous He (who says bluntly, “I don’t want to stay in this backward place”) keeps talking about his desire to emulate “boxing kings” like Ali and Pacquiao, it’s hard not to feel that there is tragedy in his future.

China Heavyweight is a curious film. Viewers couldn’t ask for a more intriguing subculture, with its deep ethos of commitment and perseverance, for a serious documentarian like Chang to lead them deep into. But he never seems able to get at what makes his subjects tick. Neither He nor even the more relaxed Miao ever truly opens up on camera, which leaves the film somewhat unmoored as it moves forward. The fascinating setting, with its rapidly expanding cities full of strivers and eager young students who walk two hours each way to school, never quite translates into engaging drama. It’s one thing to not hinge a sports documentary on who wins or loses the big bout, but quite another to not let your viewers in enough to care about who even gets in the ring.



Film Review: China Heavyweight

This vibrant documentary about young rural Chinese boxers has many of the hallmarks of greatness but ultimately keeps its subjects at too much of a remove to achieve it.

July 5, 2012

-By Chris Barsanti


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1352658-China_Heavyweight_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

This vibrant documentary about young rural Chinese boxers has many of the hallmarks of greatness but ultimately keeps its subjects at too much of a remove to achieve it.

Although the martial art that Westerners most associate China with is kung fu or one of its many variations, one of the most popular physical-contact sports in the country right now is Western-style boxing. Outlawed by Chariman Mao in 1959 as being too Western and too violent (a boxer died at a match in 1953), the sport was made legal again three decades later, and has been gaining ascendancy ever since. When China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, the nation took home a gold medal. Although a film about the popularity of this sport in the home of kung fu would seem destined to highlight the obvious cultural dissonances, director Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) does the right thing by focusing on the young and hopeful athletes for whom this tradition isn’t foreign at all.

Chang’s film has a loosely episodic arc that, like in Up the Yangtze, only gradually starts to peel back the layers on its major characters. Shot mostly in the region of Huili in Sichuan province, the film tracks slowly over the rich green landscape of foggy mountains and terraced fields of tobacco before getting down to the business of boxing, which is a serious thing in Huili. The primary school has a special boxing program, where the bearded master Zhao Zhong—who would radiate calm and wisdom even were it not for his philosophical pronouncements in conversation with a Buddhist monk—picks the most talented children of both genders to start training. (Some of the film’s most fascinating footage is of the nervous young schoolgirls learning to throw their first punches; unfortunately, Chang only follows the male boxers in any detail.) The coach, Qi Moxiang, is a toughened veteran in his late 30s who had been the country’s first professional boxer and now pines to return to the ring.

The two student boxers whom Chang follows don’t have much in common besides their promising talents. Miao Yunfei is brash and competitive, with all the confidence of a star but seemingly little of the arrogance. He Zongli is quiet and reserved, showing all the moody restlessness of the typical teenager. As the film, which was shot over 2009 to 2011, notches slowly along from one competition to the next, the question of Miao’s and He’s futures, hotly debated with their parents, hangs more pressingly over each of their scenes. Huili being isolated farmland with seemingly few job prospects besides growing tobacco for meager reward, it’s hard to deny the pull of either amateur championships or professional fame, though when the ever-nervous He (who says bluntly, “I don’t want to stay in this backward place”) keeps talking about his desire to emulate “boxing kings” like Ali and Pacquiao, it’s hard not to feel that there is tragedy in his future.

China Heavyweight is a curious film. Viewers couldn’t ask for a more intriguing subculture, with its deep ethos of commitment and perseverance, for a serious documentarian like Chang to lead them deep into. But he never seems able to get at what makes his subjects tick. Neither He nor even the more relaxed Miao ever truly opens up on camera, which leaves the film somewhat unmoored as it moves forward. The fascinating setting, with its rapidly expanding cities full of strivers and eager young students who walk two hours each way to school, never quite translates into engaging drama. It’s one thing to not hinge a sports documentary on who wins or loses the big bout, but quite another to not let your viewers in enough to care about who even gets in the ring.
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
Film Review: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Venture inside the hallowed hallways of Japan's most prestigious animation studio in this insightful documentary. More »

Antarctica: A  Year On Ice
Film Review: Antarctica: A Year on Ice

Thrilling, award-winning New Zealand doc about the mysterious and forbidding continent at the bottom of the world is not your usual travelogue, but a surprising exploration of the human soul and human needs. Happily, adorable penguins and stunning visuals also get screen time. More »

Remote Area Medical
Film Review: Remote Area Medical

Doc offers in-the-trenches evidence of dire need in the U.S. health-care system. More »

Immortalists
Film Review: The Immortalists

Attention-grabbing subject meets colorful characters in this science doc. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Penguins of Madagascar
Film Review: Penguins of Madagascar

Frenetic vehicle for supporting players from the Madagascar films will entertain kids but prove a little wearying for their parents. More »

imitation game
Film Review: The Imitation Game

Terrific biopic about world-class mathematician and social misfit Alan Turing, who, in spite of a painful struggle with his homosexuality, helped the Allies break the code of the Nazis' Enigma machine. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here