(This review was originally published on July 20, 2012 at Reel Film News.)
We all know what goes into recruiting our Olympic athletes here in the US; it’s not so much recruitment as it is being the best at what you do and getting noticed for it. In China, it seems that for the sport of boxing, they have to actively recruit boys and girls for their provincial and national boxing squads, as Chairman Mao Tse-Tung had banned boxing in 1959, stating it was “too Western and too brutal.” The ban was lifted in 1987, and as director Yung Chang’s documentary China Heavyweight shows, recruitment is happening at secondary schools for the provincial and national teams, keeping an eye out for the next Olympic gold medalist.
China Heavyweight shows you the mechanics of the Chinese boxing world – the running, the punching, the meetings with the various committees in charge of the programs – but it doesn’t really show you its emotion, being very cold and matter-of-fact. While it’s great for a documentary to have a detached feel in order to really observe the subjects, China Heavyweight alienates more than it draws in. Chang has put his camera on two different boxing hopefuls and their coach in order for us to learn their stories; by movie’s end, do we really care more than when we came in? We meet the following people during the course of this movie: Qi Moxiang, the recruiter/coach and former national boxing squad member, who has never won the Golden Belt he sought for his entire career, and is now living sort-of vicariously through his trainees; we are shown the life of Miao Yunfei, a young boxer with a family that works in the tobacco fields; and finally, we see He Zongli, Miao’s teammate, whose confidence is nowhere to be found.
Yunfei’s family is seen working in the fields and having a lot of concern about his direction in life. He wants to become a “boxing king, like Pacquiao and Tyson” almost immediately, so he can get rich, turn the family’s tobacco field into an orchard, and let them all live the good life. However, he doesn’t have a good foundation to be a boxing king, nor does he have the experience. Qi develops a yearning to fight one more time for the Golden Belt after training Yunfei and Zongli, all the while getting ribbed by his contemporaries about how he’s not married and has no prospects.
Chang dangles these people in front of our eyes for 94 minutes, yet it feels much longer than that. While the photography is stunning, I just couldn’t bring myself to care very much for the subjects of this movie. Qi is made to be this Rocky-esque type of character; however, when the climax of his story comes, you find yourself shrugging instead of genuinely rooting for him. When we see what becomes of Yunfei, we almost don’t know quite what to make of it – not out of disbelief, but out of “okay, so that happened.” Also seen being recruited for the national boxing team are girls – what happened to them? Where’s their story? I feel like Chang has got too many balls in the air, and he’s not juggling them appropriately. We don’t know where we’re supposed to give our attention, and the movie doesn’t quite reach the climax that I think Chang wanted to achieve. It is an interesting look into the Chinese boxing development program; in that, the documentary succeeds. But if you’re looking for something a little more personal, look somewhere else.