Canadian helmer Yung Chang delivers another artfully downbeat chronicle of mainland life with “China Heavyweight,” an intimate and affecting account of two aspiring boxers from the sticks training under the same hard-working coach. As he did in his Three Gorges Dam docu “Up the Yangtze,” Chang examines how a particular strain of Western culture promises opportunity and prosperity for Chinese youth, even as it remains a continual source of intergenerational tension. Fluidly lensed and shaped to generate the immersive feel and texture of a narrative feature, this engrossing, arguably too-short documentary should last a few rounds in theatrical release.
What Chang has wrought here is essentially and, refreshingly, the antithesis of what one might expect from a competitive sports documentary. Not a hint of triumphalism, manipulation or crowdpleasing instinct is evident in this quietly melancholy study of Chinese youth, for whom boxing represents a chance to escape their hardscrabble roots and bring honor and fortune to their families.
The helmer and his crew spent about two years shooting at a boxing school in Huili, a rural county in Sichuan province, focusing on coach Qi Moxiang, a onetime Olympic hopeful who has since poured his talent and energy into training up-and-coming boxers. Though occasionally tempted and encouraged to get back into the ring himself, Qi sacrifices all for his young charges, instilling in them the very Eastern principle that Chinese boxing, though strongly Western-influenced, is grounded in discipline and self-control.
One of Qi’s most promising students is Miao Yunfei, a somewhat hulking fighter who wins his division at Sichuan’s provincial youth tournament. Yet Miao realizes, rightly, that the track laid out for him — spend years training and competing at the local level in hopes of a shot at Olympic gold — is a long, arduous one that likely leads nowhere, and he decides to try his luck on the professional circuit instead. Less obviously talented but more patient and dedicated is He Zongli, whom Miao affectionately regards as a younger, more introverted brother.
The only piece of onscreen exposition appears at the start, as the film explains that Mao Tsetung banned Western-style boxing in 1959; the sport made a comeback 30 years later, and now exists as one of many crowded avenues by which China seeks to cement its global standing. Simply by striking an observational pose, Chang manages to raise all manner of troubling questions about the difficulty of getting ahead in a society where individual achievement is always subordinated to the cause of national progress.
Parents play a crucial role in this relentless struggle, and the filmmakers were granted remarkable access to their subjects’ families — especially in the case of Miao, whose tobacco-farming mother, hoping for a less back-breaking future for her son, expresses reservations about the way he’s staked his entire future on becoming a fighter. The clash of parents, offspring and state may not be as wrenchingly depicted here as it was in “Up the Yangtze” or in Lixin Fan’s superb “Last Train Home,” but the film’s patient, gently probing approach nonetheless succeeds in capturing a universal conflict in microcosm.
While “China Heavyweight” is, as its double-edged title suggests, something of a downer, the film never dwells on misery for its own sake, and it’s continually leavened by humor and human interest; even Qi cannot escape the nagging of family and friends when it comes to the matter of why he still isn’t married in his late 30s.
Working with editors Hannele Halm and Feng Xi, Chang strives for narrative seamlessness, an impression furthered by Sun Shaoguang’s flowing handheld camerawork (abetted by gorgeous stationary shots of the Sichuan countryside) and the complete absence of talking heads or visual aids. The result has a certain vagueness of structure and chronology, and the film’s ambiguous conclusions leave the viewer wanting to go deeper with these subjects than the 94-minute running time permits.
Boxing footage is smoothly shot but rarely packs a visceral punch; Olivier Alary’s score offers subtle enhancement throughout. One of the pic’s more intriguing but unexplored details is the accessibility of the boxing program to girls, seen tentatively training with Qi and other coaches, but rarely advancing further.