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.

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.