Yung Chang on China Heavyweight

Boxing documentary's director on punches and poverty

China Heavyweight, a documentary chronicling the blood, sweat and tears of a group of Chinese peasants who dream of being national boxing champions, is showing this month as part of JUE Festival. Time Out talks to director Yung Chang

Canadian-Chinese director Yung Chang, 34, first appeared on the radar with Up the Yangtze (2007) his award-winning documentary focusing on the lives of ordinary people affected by the Three Gorges Dam project. With China Heavyweight, Chang spent two years at a boxing school in Sichuan with the young hopefuls who long to escape rural hardship by boxing their way to Olympic glory.

What drew you to boxing in China as a subject?
After two years travelling the world with Yangtze, I found myself in a bit of a hole about what my sophomore film would be. My producer and I encountered a couple of articles that were about the burgeoning sport of boxing in China. Immediately the idea appealed to me. I grew up in North America watching all kinds of boxing movies, from Rocky to Raging Bull, and the boxing genre has parallels to kung fu movies – the gamut of Bruce Lee films as well as Shaw Brothers films like The Chamber of Shaolin.

The similarity between the kung fu movie and the boxing genre is that it’s not really about the final fight. It’s about the ethical challenges the fighters face along the road to the final showdown. I wanted to apply that to a documentary film. We did some additional research with our Chinese producers and discovered there’s a whole world, this underbelly of society that’s using Western-style boxing to climb up the ladder and I found that fascinating.

How big is boxing in China and why did you focus on the school in Sichuan?
Boxing was banned in China until 1987 because it was considered too violent, too Western. Today, the good boxing teams are the PLA and the police, and then there’s a Beijing school. Shanghai is up there as well.

We found this rural school in Huili, which is a small county in the mountains of Sichuan. There’s only one road into the town, and in the school there’s a master and a coach and they’ve been recruiting champion fighters at an amateur level for the last 20 years. They’ve created around 200 champions.

In this town we found amazing people. The master, Zhao Zhang, is a pacifist Buddhist, but he believes in the sport of boxing as a way to teach the children how to prepare for their future. Also, Qi Moxiang, the coach, is a former fighter but through circumstance he was unable to become a professional. At the end of the film there’s an amazing twist – which I won’t give away – but the coach decides to get back in the ring. It’s a very emotional narrative that emerged from being with the kids and the coach for two years.

What’s life like for the students at the boxing school?
Because Huili is at a high altitude and the children are from farming families they’re built stronger, they have bigger lungs and are groomed for a sport like boxing. The coaches perform a little test and if the boys or girls can throw a punch then they’re selected and given scholarships and board at the Huili school.

There’s a monthly fee the parents have to scrabble together, but it’s worth the opportunity for the kids. At the school they have about 30 students in the scholarship programme, aged from 13 to 18, boys and girls. The kids have nothing. They train in a concrete courtyard, without proper equipment, without headgear. When they’re punching they’re punching their bare heads. It really felt like I was walking into a martial arts school.

The hope is that these children will be able to pursue the amateur circuit, getting into provincial team, going national and ideally becoming Olympic champions. There’s a very high drop-out rate, but I think the reason that they stay on is because the coach, Qi, is so amazing. In many ways this film is about mentorism, it’s about coaches and teachers. We all have teachers we look up to in our past and he’s an inspirational figure.

What motivates the students?
In the countryside, filial pressures still hold. But kids in China in 2012 expect a fast-track through life. Media and television, with images of consumerism and fame, influence them and they think they can realise their dreams fast, they don’t see life as a circuitous path with challenges. In the film you see that the desire to go professional is blurred with these delusions of grandeur.

Does the sense of filial piety extend to a feeling of patriotic duty?
This film explores the question: ‘who are you fighting for’? These children are bred to fight for their country, there’s a certain nationalist tone. What’s unique about pursuing boxing is that it’s not a sport of the collective. You become a boxer when you can say ‘I’m fighting for myself’. China Heavyweight is a film about the individual versus the collective. With boxing you’re faced with your own demons, your own inhibitions. One of the boys we followed is very shy, he had a lot of setbacks in the ring because his family is broken and they’re tough on him – it mentally blocks him.

There’s something about boxing that’s so primal, so animalistic. When I was filming the final fight I couldn’t help feeling this surge of pride and nationalism. It was this really weird conflict. It was really emotional and I wonder if it’s in part due the idea of brotherhood. They say boxing is the sweet science and it’s quite poetic when people are moving and dancing in a real rhythm. But it is brutal. 

China Heavyweight is at New Hengshan Cinema on Friday 21 March