Award-winning director Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) takes us back to China in his new documentary China Heavyweight and shows us the other side of China’s sporting successes.
In the South West of China, athletic coaches working for the state scour the poor countryside to recruit young teenagers who demonstrate a talent for boxing. The goal is to train them and turn them into Western-style boxing champions. This type of boxing used to be forbidden in China for being too American but after a thirty year ban was removed it once again became a very popular sport.
After a strict selection process the young selected trainees are moved from their villages to training centres, where a rigorous regimen is adopted – both in sports and further education – all so they can become China’s next Olympic heroes. A passion for the sport is not needed in order to succeed.
The risks are very high though for the boys and girls who have been plucked from school in order to train. If they succeed, they can leave their poor lives behind and represent China during international events. If they fail, they are sent back home to a future of hard manual labour – a strong motivator which those training them make sure they do not forget.
The film outlines a very modern problem in China; in a communist country personal gain is unimportant, it is the state that counts. The top students face dramatic choices as they graduate – should they fight for the collective good or for themselves? The allure of turning pro for glory competes with the main philosophy behind their training – to represent their nation.
A great character who carries the film is the student’s charismatic coach, Qi Moxiang. He gave up boxing some years ago, after failing to qualify for the Olympics but is now preparing for one last fight, it has to be the comeback of a lifetime. He is like a father figure for the students who often find themselves hundreds of miles away from home and hardly get a chance to visit.
China Heavyweight is really a masterful profile of China, told through the prism of the boxing world. We see the personal struggles, the way communist ideas collide with modern day Western influences and how these influences change and divide the nation.