In 1959 Chairman Mao banned western style boxing in China, calling it too American and too violent. Thirty years later the prohibition was lifted and a new film, “China Heavyweight” focuses on Zongli He and Yunfei Miao, two teenagers in remote Sichuan, China who hope to become internationally recognized fighters and find a way, through blood, sweat and tears, out of the poverty that defines the rest of their lives.
Like the very best of sports stories “China Heavyweight” isn’t about the sport as it is about the larger themes surrounding the subject. In this case Canadian-Chinese director Yung Chang uses sport as a springboard to tell not only a human story but also a story of the collision of modernity and tradition in Chinese culture.
This is not the kind of talking-head documentary we so often see. Instead Chang is an observer, cannily capturing conversations and situations, allowing the story to form organically. Along the way he captures the intimate moments, the brutal moments and some heartbreaking ones as well.
We learn of the bond between the boys—“We’re taking different paths now, but in the future we’ll still be brothers.”—get up close and personal with their coach, Moxiang Qi’s fierce training techniques and see the look of disappointment on Miao’s face when his mother, a tobacco farmer, doesn’t support his dream to be a king of the ring.
“China Heavyweight” is a documentary that demands something from its audience, it requires you look past the sport and into the larger cultural mosaic it fits into.