(2012)4.5Nathan SouthernYung Chang's China Heavyweight offers a damning indictment of China's professional boxing subculture. At the outset of the picture, Chang informs us that Charman Mao Tse-Tung banned pugilism in 1959 for its excessive violence; the prohibition held for three decades. In the wake of boxing's legalization, federal administrators decided to seek and cultivate future heavyweight champions who would reflect the country's prowess and superiority to the global community at Olympic games. With this in mind, officials began sending "recruiters" to regularly visit Chinese primary schools and stir up interest in the sport among pre-adolescents. The ploy worked; thousands of children started to pine for heavyweight triumph. Chang shot his film during the months leading up to the 2012 Summer Olympics in Beijing. He intertwines three narrative threads; one observes ex-fighter turned coach and recruiter Qi Moxiang as he decides to take one final stab at a title bout, while the second and third substories follow individual contenders, teenagers Miao Yunfei and He Zhong Le, on their way up the boxing ladder.
This film leaves the viewer feeling more disquieted and unsettled than any documentary to emerge for quite some time. While boxing itself isn't ignoble per se, we see immediately that the Chinese system that has been constructed around it is thoroughly corrupt. Chang makes it clear to us that the Chinese recruiters are essentially slickster con men, offering local children empty promises of glory and heroism that will, in most cases, never be fulfilled. The solicitors who appear onscreen are transparently manipulative and toy blatantly with kids' emotions and perceptions before our eyes. One smirking fellow chides the pupils, "For the provincial team, you'll be the country's official athletes. You'll be the country's people. If you don't train hard, you'll end up growing tobacco. Then you are no one but your mama's kid! Understand?" The overt implications of this - that only two economic options exist for these youth (poverty or wealthy sports stardom) and that self-worth is inextricably tied to a heavyweight boxing championship - are totally ludicrous. We realize with unease that because of their young and impressionable ages, the children are not able to see through the lies that are being sold to them. In other words, the recruiters and the government administrators responsible for commissioning them have developed an effective brainwashing technique - one with cultlike overtones that, as evidenced by some of the scenes in this film, can often linger well into its victims' twenties and thirties.
The picture functions as a giant muckraking document, set up to unveil and explore the shaky ethics of the Chinese boxing recruitment system. Chang is hip to the depth of the problem, and he shows us the whole multileveled schema - from the baby-faced schoolchildren led astray from promising futures, to private boardroom meetings between calculating government officials and recruiters. Because Yung follows each of the subjects with his camera over a span of many months, we even witness the sad outcomes of Miao, He Zong and Qi's dreams - which collectively validate the phoniness of the machine that gave rise to them. The film's perceptiveness in each of its sequences is particularly noteworthy because the director dispenses with traditional voice-over narration and never actually tells us anything forthright; he simply stands back with his camera rolling, detached from the goings-on, and his intuition is such that he manages to repeatedly catch revealing behavior and dialogue that enables us to size up the scenario for ourselves and draw our own conclusions. For instance, we get a remarkable scene where the same recruiter who gave the tobacco speech chats up a Buddhist monk who hates boxing. The salesman tries to con his way to a religious blessing by somehow linking pugilism and Confucianism. His argument isn't convincing, but the attempt is fascinating to watch, and reveals just how wily this guy is, and the lengths to which he'll go to realize his aims.
The other major strength of the documentary is Chang's characteristic willingness to delve into paradoxes. They emerge in a couple of respects, including the movie's sociological layer. On that level, we're confronted with the same bizarre cross-pollination of Communist nationalism and Western individualism that makes contemporaray China itself so elusive and difficult to comprehend, and that we also saw in Up the Yangtze; the apparent contradictions are equally intriguing here. For instance, we glimpse posters of Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston on Qi's apartment wall - icons of American self-determinism, whom Qi idolizes - and yet learn that Qi has supposedly been fighting for the glory of the nation as a whole. The juxtaposition also seems inexplicable and is thus intriguing to contemplate. It's also jarring to hear the onscreen boxing coaches try to egg pupils on to victory by drawing on their supposed desire for the collective glory of the Chinese populace, and yet witness reactions on the childrens' faces which suggest that the kids aren't really buying the Communist ideology, and don't seem the least bit satisfied by the thought of winning for the sake of others.
As the film nears its midpoint, it also begins to introduce interesting ethical ambiguities regarding the pugilism itself, independently of the system that taints it. Although it's impossible to watch the footage without concluding that the boxing subculture is manipulative and exploitative, several comments by onscreen participants put the fighting per se in a more amiable light - as when one participant speculates that the end goal doesn't have to be heavyweight victory; the sport can merely be valuable as a way for Chinese youth to develop qualities such as forbearance and perseverance that can aid them in areas such as business. The argument is a thoroughly credible one, and insights such as that transition the film from a furious (albeit effective) social admonishment into a more detached and oblique series of reflections on a phenomenon that may not be as clear-cut as it initially seemed. As such, these are the most effective and involving passages in the picture.
If Heavyweight missteps, it does so only via Chang's failure to remind us that the most disturbing characteristics of Chinese boxing recruitment apply not only to organized fighting, but to many other sports in contemporary China, as well - a horrifying revelation that is a natural organic extension of the movie's disclosures. That lapse notwithstanding, however, this is still a powerful and often devastating sociological critique that benefits throughout from the same remarkable craftsmanship and narrative skill that we've seen in Chang's other pictures.
Documentary filmmaker Yung Chang follows dedicated boxing coach Qi Moxiang on his mission to shape promising athletes from rural China into Olympic pugilists. Paralleling the story of the young Olympic hopefuls is that of their 30-something coach, who himself is training for an upcoming fight that, if won, will restore his honor in the ring.