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Hot Docs 2012: ‘China Heavyweight’ is an emotional contender

Hot Docs 2012: ‘China Heavyweight’ is an emotional contender

China Heavyweight

Directed by Yung Chang

Canada, 2012

In 1959, Chairman Mao banned Western-style boxing for being too American and too violent. Thirty years later, the ban was lifted. Although symptomatic of China’s ameliorating progress, Canadian director Yung Chang, in his documentary, China Heavyweight, exhibits how the country has yet to purge itself of Mao’s irreparable social and economic legacies.

The film documents the story of two teenagers in rural Sichuan, China, hoping to become the next big thing in international boxing. Coached by the dedicated Qi Moxiang, they try to rise through the amateur level in order to become professional boxers, and to break out of their substandard social-economic situations.

The best way to describe China Heavyweight is to call it the boxing equivalent of Steve James’ basketball documentary, Hoop Dreams. Rife with dialectical feelings of both desperation and aspiration, Heavyweight is an essential social document on the hardships and lack of opportunity in the industrialized ‘New’ China.

From the outset, we are introduced to Qi Moxiang and his two prodigies, Zongli He and Yunfei Miao. From watching the ‘boxing kings’, like Ali, De La Hoya and Tyson, both fighters are enamored by both the fame and the financial rewards of being a professional athlete.

Apparently smitten by Western sports, athletes and their athletic culture, Miao and He see boxing as their livelihood, as the one vehicle that can drive them out of their “backwards” hometown and into the open arms of the rest of the world. In fact, there are many instances where people in the film are wearing Western sports paraphernalia; an attempt to live the life of professional athletes by proxy.

These instances, where we see recognizable team logos and jerseys, reminds the audience of the success and prosperity of Western professional athletes, and by juxtaposing them with the poverty of Miao and He’s current circumstances, we get a sense of the chasm that exists between the two cultures. Because of this, we are able to understand their motivations, and, consequently, to empathize with their struggle.

And because we understand the motives, and their deep, underlying immediacy, everything they do in the film takes on a more profound meaning. When they are training, we recognize the commitment and utter determination in their physical exertions.

And when they box, we get the sense that they are fighting for more than just a win; they’re fighting for their futures, because if they lose, they will stay in destitution, working menial labour for the rest of their lives.

As we near the end of their respective stories, the finale proves to be heart wrenching, and when we see the long line of people with similar dreams, the sense of despair and hopelessness in the film are multiplied tenfold.

Following his critically acclaimed 2007 documentary, Up the Yangtze, Chang again returns to the seemingly never-ending social and economic tribulations of the ‘New’ China. In fact, it seems like this subject provides ample material for Chinese-Canadian filmmakers from Montreal, with Lixin Fan’s 2009 documentary, Last Train Home, striking a similar cord.

Although China Heavyweight doesn’t pack the same punch as these films, it nevertheless succeeds in being an emotional punch in the gut.

– Justin Li

Visit the official website for the Hot Docs Film Festival