Hot Docs Review: China Heavyweight
Boxing movies, whether fictional or documentary, are just brutal. Toss in the generally taxing demands placed on Chinese Olympic hopefuls, and you have China Heavyweight, screening as part of Hot Docs 2012. Award-winning director Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) follows Qi Moxiang, a state boxing coach, as he scours the Chinese countryside for young boxing talent and tracks along with several students as they achieve boxing glory… or don’t.
Viewers will blanche at the proposition offered to the young students in their rural middle school at the the start of the film. It’s shockingly familiar and similar to the hope often extended to inner city youth in the Western world via professional sports. Boxing is your ticket out — out of the countryside, out of poverty, out of the grinding life of a tobacco farmer. The unlikely probability of achieving that goal is left unspoken, and the entire movie eventually reads as a metaphor for the struggles facing the population of New China. Afterall, what’s a better metaphor for fighting your way up and out of poverty than, well, fighting?
As may be expected, these young Chinese boxers are reminded at every turn that they are fighting for China, not themselves. Coach Qi encourages his students to remain amateur boxers in the service of the state and to aim for the Olympics. For a few the lure of going pro, guilelessly referred to by one student as being a “boxing king,” is too strong for some. With the odds heavily stacked against him, we see Miao leave the dormitory of the state boxing program to go pro. When next we see him, he’s manning a shovel on a construction project. Such is life, it seems, for a Chinese boxing king.
We see other dashed hopes in China Heavyweight, too. Viewers are allowed a peek into the lives of disappointed parents. Coach Qi’s mother is endlessly disappointed that he hasn’t married. In a tense kitchen table conversation, she obliquely chastises him for not only giving up his life in the pursuit of boxing glory, but also for encouraging his students to do the same. Miao’s mother, at one point beaming at his win of a provincial championship, delivers a disappointed tirade when he opts out of state boxing, all while working on her tobacco farm.
And then there is Coach Qi himself. While charismatic and especially loved by his students, most notably giggling gaggles of young girls, he exists as a silent indictment of the whole system in question here. We’re told at the start of the film that he’s training boxers at no charge, illustrating that whatever glory he managed to achieve netted nothing for him. What is Coach Qi doing here? Why does he prod his students to taking the same path? Director Chang smartly doesn’t address those questions directly, but lets the answers unfold over time. Because, of course (this is a boxing movie, after all), Coach Qi wants to have “one last fight.” His biggest regret is never winning the coveted “Golden Belt,” and the clock is ticking on even trying.
I won’t spoil the results of Qi’s eventual bout. Suffice it to say, China Heavyweight closes as it opens with Coach Qi and his colleague trawling a rural middle school for fresh talent, though the scene reads as far more insidious and distasteful at the end. As they dangle the carrot of boxing glory while simultaneously threatening with the stick of continued poverty, the director allows the hopeful faces of the a group of boys gathered in the school windows to deliver the indictment.
Watch the China Heavyweight Trailer
*This post was originally published in The Toronto Film Scene.