Boxing has a long tradition of drawing enlistees from hardscrabble places that offer little hope of a future. China wasn't always one of these however; the sport was banned by Chairman Mao in 1959 for being "too Western," too brutal, and was not reinstated until '87.
China Heavyweight, a remarkable new documentary (now in limited release) by Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang, takes a revealing look at the opportunities this Western sport offers to young Chinese men today, even as boxing remains a point of contention between younger and older generations. Chang spent nearly two years following Qi Moxiang, a former pro boxer turned state coach who identifies and develops talent among rural teens in the impoverished Sichuan province, promoting boxing as a healthy alternative to Confucian modesty. The vérité-style documentary concentrates at first on Qi's two most promising students: one cocksure, the other burdened by self-doubt. Midway through, it refocuses on the charismatic coach, who resumes fighting professionally after years away from the ring.
Enhanced by gorgeous handheld camera work and extraordinary access to the subjects' families, China Heavyweight lays bare elemental truths of the sweet science that also function as life lessons in a fiercely competitive society. "In the end you have to fight with perseverance," Qi teaches. "When two boxers are equal, the brave one wins."
The film also explores an age-old cultural dilemma: How can earning personal glory in the most individual of sports be reconciled with the collectivist philosophy underpinning China's state-run training? Chang mines metaphorical meaning from a compelling personal drama, and he underscores how filial piety and the hypnotic rhythms of the gym are truly universal.