Pulling No Punches, Boxing Gives Hope For Poor Rural Youth
Modern China is a place that revels in tradition, honor, and hard work – ethics that pervade the nationally sponsored youth boxing programs that have grown after the long running ban on the sport was lifted in 1986. In the southwest Sichuan Province of China, Huili County is one of the many rural communities being skimmed by selfless boxing coaches for young recruits who may one day become China’s Olympic competitors. Chinese Canadian director Yung Chang and a wholly Chinese film crew embedded themselves in the Huili countryside, sublimely documenting a group of fledgling boxers and their inspiring coaching staff as they brave through rigorous training, confer with fellow trainees, and confront their deeply conflicted, tobacco farming families.
China’s very first professional boxer, Qi Moxiang, turned to coaching after he resigned from the national team in 2004. Since then he has been training young hopefuls along with his own boxing instructor, Zhao Zhong, completely free of cost. From throughout the impoverished rural hills, kids gather each season to test their punches and show their stances. Those with the best natural abilities are chosen, and with the permission of their families, the children move into a training facility where they learn the mentality of perseverance and respect that is demanded within the sport while they sculpt their physique in preparation for combat. With any luck, these students will find the confidence within themselves to face their opponent, physically dominate them, and psychologically outlast them. After long talks and internal struggles, some are guilt-tripped into quitting by their families, some see a brighter future in the more lucrative world of professional boxing, while others remain loyal to their country and their coaches.
In the midst of coaching, Moxiang himself decides to re-enter the ring in an attempt to regain the pride and honor he lost in his final match in which he was defeated. His training sessions are interwoven with those of his students, all of which lead up to one climatic match. All of these elements are assembled with a distinct sense of pace and a graceful sense of cultural respect. Though all of the footage found within the film are candid moments and structured training sessions, it all feels highly personal; not something you’d often find in a Chinese-based film. The footage also plays along side an oriental tinged soundtrack that fits perfectly within the confines of the feature.
Implementing the steady hand of Shaoguang Sun, a cinematographer who’s only previous film credit included the camera operator for Lixin Fan’s well regarded doc, Last Train Home, Chang has proven himself here as a top tier visual artist. The team have produced a gritty, yet warm picture that really conveys the nature of boxing in a physical sense. Blood and sweat runs down the faces of children while in the meditative countryside locations and the wide open, echoing gyms. It makes for an interesting visual representation of cultural shift. Though the sport is one of minute elegance, it is also an exercise in violence, and Sun has captured that delicate balance with striking visual diligence.
While not promoting or condemning the sport, Chang presents this young group of athletes for the world to witness their many struggles. Whether it be the traditionalism of their unsupportive families, or the playful competition for girls at the mall, their strife is ever present. For some, boxing could be the path away from a back breaking life of tobacco farming, but most parents in the region see boxing as a short term distraction at best, leading most students to give up to help support their family in the fields. Thanks to Chang’s unique ancestry, he has been able to gain the trust of his foreign subjects, presenting Chinese culture with an unfiltered view from a first world perspective. Adhering boxing as a backdrop, he has painted an inspiring and captivating impression of perseverance in the face of overwhelming adversity with great respect for the admirable coaches that instill life shaping values in their young students. China Heavyweight is a brilliant sophomore feature that proves Chang is a highly talented director who produces documentaries that transmit both authenticity and technical artistry.
Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival – World Documentary Section