Yung Chang, China Heavyweight
Back in 2007, Montreal-based filmmaker Yung Chang examined the deleterious effects of grand-scale modernization in China on two cruise-ship employees in his celebrated documentary Up the Yangtze. Trailing his subjects as they minister to the needs of well-to-do passengers embarking on “goodbye tours” of river communities that will soon be flooded to make way for the Three Gorges Dam, Chang offered a moving account of the wealth divide as well as the impact of unprecedented change on common people. Up the Yangtze screened at numerous festivals including Sundance, Full Frame, Hot Docs, and IDFA, winning Best Documentary at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and earned the director an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Regrouping with his Canadian colleagues at EyeSteelFilm (the producers of Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home) for China Heavyweight, which debuted at Sundance in January, Chang turns his attention to the rise of amateur boxing in the hyperdeveloping Asian nation, focusing on two young hopefuls and the efforts of their coach, China’s first professional boxer, to guide them on the path to maturity and potential success.
The context for China Heavyweight, shot over two years, is fascinating: At the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1959, as China organized its inaugural National Games, boxing was banned by Mao for its brutality and Westernizing influence, which he perceived to be overtly capitalist. Twenty years later, the sport experienced a rebirth after an official state visit by Muhammad Ali helped shift prevailing attitudes; nowadays, recruiters comb the countryside looking for hearty male and female students to groom into champion fighters. Qi Moxiang, the intelligent, hard-knuckled anchor of Chang’s film, is a hero in southern Sichuan, a top-ranked bruiser who has coached the provincial team in Huili since 2004, purely out of passion for the sport. In the film, we watch as he tries out school-age kids, mostly from impoverished families, and later trains them in groups. (One youth gets clobbered repeatedly until his nose spouts blood; instead of winning sympathy, he gets scolded for lifting his head up when he throws a punch.) Chang zeroes in on two teenage boys, quiet He Zongli—a good fighter whose “mental game” needs work—and Miao Yunfei, who dreams of boxing stardom and is eager to become a professional. Both come from humble tobacco-farming families and have trained with Qi for six years in the hopes of achieving the kind of prosperity that a life toiling in the fields will never yield or approximate. (“I don’t want to stay in this backward place,” Miao tells his mother.) Though it is beautifully observed and wrought with dramatic moments revolving around personal struggles and important bouts (Qi’s nerve-racking return to the ring is almost a movie in itself), China Heavyweight has more on its mind than boxing. By examining the lives and fates of these Olympic dreamers with sensitivity and humor, Chang also profiles in microcosm the ongoing story of a nation’s bid for success in the fraught world of competitive markets, with an outcome yet to be decided.
Filmmaker spoke with Chang about boxing as metaphor, interpreting reality, and how to handle Mike Tyson. China Heavyweight opens Friday at the IFC Center in New York.
Filmmaker: What do you think accounts for the rise in popularity of boxing in China?
Chang: The most obvious reason is the Olympics — 13 medal opportunities means a good chance at bolstering their standing. That’s the idea behind making it a strong amateur sport in China. The professional sport is nascent and hasn’t quite hit the level of popularity that we have in America and Canada. There are challenges involved in making it a big sport. One is they need to have a Yao Ming kind of athlete, which they’re looking for. What’s been helpful is that outsiders from American and Australia [are looking to] the country as the future of the sport. Don King and Mike Tyson have gone there as ambassadors to promote boxing. China has potential to do very well in the London Olympics. You know, there’s a difference in the way they train a boxer, which goes to the heart of China Heavyweight. They still train by rote, using a mass collective method that’s reminiscent of martial arts. But boxing is really about the individual, it’s about fighting for yourself.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene where your main subject, Coach Qi Moxiang, and his trainer Zhao Zhong are having a dialogue with a monk. He thinks the sport’s brutal, and their argument is that it actually reflects the highest values of Confucianism.
Chang: I love that moment — and it sets up the philosophy behind the use of the sport in China. I’m also reminded of China’s open market policy, and how they say “it’s capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” I wonder if they’re supplanting boxing in the same way, as a way to embrace a sport that is very violent, that does require that kind of improvisation and individualistic mentality. It’s their way of interpreting it and pulling it into a Chinese context. That’s how the country is dealing with transition and change.
Filmmaker: That dynamic is also reflected in your previous film, Up the Yangtze, looking at the ways modernization is affecting families. Here the family unit is very important to the stories of He and to Miao, particularly. He has a self-realization that allows him to think like an individual for the first time and it creates a separation from his family.
Chang: That’s right. When I first met Miao, I thought he was very Westernized — he had an outsider mentality. He seemed really driven, a guy who wanted to race to the top. There was an idealism [akin to] the drive to be successful, the American dream, that seems to be so much a part of the boxing mythology. He was like this Marlon Brando character—he was so quiet and yet his naturalness and comfort with the camera was unbelievable.
Filmmaker: Coach Qi tells Miao he’ll be a third-rate boxer if he goes pro before he’s ready, and at that moment, you cut to a shot of his fists slowly withdrawing into his jersey sleeves.
Chang: Yeah, that’s great. You can say so much with so little. It just requires the acumen of a good cinematographer and the talent of a good editor, and you can start piecing it together. China Heavyweight is a pure documentary, in a way, very much cinema vérité. But I’m reminded of Alan King, the great documentary filmmaker. He had a definition of his type of filmmaking, which he called “actuality drama.” I’m more on that tip—I’m hoping the film can melt into that muddy terrain of narrative and documentary, because the process of making it was very collaborative. Obviously, we weren’t telling people what to do in their lives—that happened to unfold in a natural way. But the collaboration allowed us to slow down the pace, so that we were able to capture moments in a scene. Miao called me and my producer to let us know that he had made a big decision. So we were inclusive in the process, and that [relationship] takes a lot of time to build. There’s a trust and an exchange between the subject and the filmmaker. Sometimes you shoot a lot and don’t get what you want to get and you just have to walk away. We shot about 200 hours of footage. In the end you take the best stuff and out of that you shape a narrative.
Filmmaker: I love the term “actuality drama.” I wanted to ask you about nonfiction filmmakers borrowing techniques from narrative film. It’s happening more and more, allowing documentarians to depict reality in ever richer ways. At what point does that enter your thinking?
Chang: I’m piecing it together as I go along. For this kind of film, you’re trying to get what you need from a scene so you can build the film together. For the motorcycle shot of Miao [riding along a winding mountain road], for instance, we were on the way to his home, so we asked if we get these shots of him. From the filmmaker’s point of view, these are the bridges that build the narrative and that help you have a pure narrative feel. And usually the subject goes along with it. We weren’t asking him to do something uncomfortable or unnatural. I don’t think I’m doing anything new – I am inspired by fiction filmmaking. And a lot of fiction filmmaking uses the approach of documentary to achieve a feeling of authenticity and improvisation. Look at Cassavetes, the Dardenne brothers, even Blue Valentine, using handheld cameras to make things feel fresh as they’re unfolding in the moment. I’m thinking of the National Film Board of Canada’s definition of documentary: “interpreting reality.” The word interpreting is so important, because it is subjective. There’s a subjective point of view, a filmmaker who’s making decisions about where to point the camera. This is not 60 Minutes, or journalism. I’m trying to make something poetic and entertaining. Also, what I think underlines documentary is the commentary you can pull out of it, the big-picture commentary. I’m interested in those microcosms. For Up the Yangtze, it was the Three Gorges Dam and this luxury liner traveling upriver – the idea of modernization captured in this upstairs/downstairs world of the cruise ship. For this film, it’s the individualism of boxing in a Chinese context.
Filmmaker: I love the fact that you use the title of the film as a way to broadcast that metaphor. It’s China “heavyweight,” but Qi is actually a bantamweight boxer.
Chang: Yes, you’re right. The Chinese title of the film is an old idiom that translates roughly “To be tried and tested a thousand times over.” It’s a kung fu statement that resonates with Chinese who see the film. In some ways, China Heavyweight is a morality tale. I see Coach Qi as the last modern hero. He’s trying to instill certain traditional values into his students, using a Western sport. There’s a great moment in the film when Qi tells He that in the face of failure, being courageous is a noble virtue. That’s almost a theme of the film — and in the big picture, a statement for the country as well. The fast track to success is not always the right path. He also tells Miao you’ve got to take it slow, you’ve got to climb that ladder, but not quickly. There’s a lot of metaphors thrown in there! So yeah, I do want people to think about that idea of the country being embedded in the story of these characters.
Filmmaker: You had more or less wrapped the shoot when Qi made a decision to go back in the ring and scrambled a crew to go capture that match. It really had the spirit of an old boxing drama—there was a nerve-racking aspect to it all. Did you sense the outcome beforehand?
Chang: It seemed to be an ambitious endeavor for him, since he didn’t have a lot of time to train. When I set out to film that process, we all did have a feeling that it was going to be a tough fight. We had restructured the film to revolve around him. It was such a visceral experience, and our blood was burning for Qi to win. There’s something about the live performance of boxing that takes you right in. Anything goes, and you feel it so deeply. I tried to capture that in the final fight. It’s excruciating for me to watch, very emotional. It’s intense, and even the camera gets bumped. For every fight in the film we progressively got closer and closer to the action.
Filmmaker: Why do you think so many fighters come out of this one area, southern Sichuan?
Chang: Because of the location. They’re in a high altitude, so the recruiters look for peasant farmers who have big lungs. In the opening of the film, they ask the students, “How long does it take you to walk to school?” And some of these kids say two hours! That’s through the mountains – that means they’re built for it, they’ve got the body for it. But the thing that’s so arbitrary about it, for all sports at the state level, is that officials go around looking for athletes based on their build and maybe their talent. There are so many children that out of a pool of 500, only one or two will make it. But that’s all you need. This is reflected in the film: their futures and fates are based on the drop of a coin, how well they throw a punch or how long it takes them to walk to school. For me, that’s profound, almost fateful. We only ever hear the success stories, which builds our hopes and dreams. What happens when you don’t make it?
Filmmaker: One who did make it big was Mike Tyson, of course. I understand you had an interesting encounter with him while making China Heavyweight.
Chang: [Laughs] I did. Tyson had been hired by the Tianjin government to be an ambassador of boxing, because they wanted to make the city the next capital of the sport in China. When I got wind of that, I was shooting in the mountains. I decided to go meet him to see if he wanted to be part of my movie. I camped out for three days in his luxury hotel, so it was a long process of the disciple trying to meet the master. [His team] sent me on missions – at one point, he wanted a toenail clipper, a pomegranate, and Shaw Brothers kung fu movies. I couldn’t find any of those things, so I gave him a copy of Up the Yangtze. He had to get out of his hotel room after he watched it because it shook him to the core. He was walking through the lobby, and that’s when we met him and showed him some footage. He’s very knowledgeable about Chinese history and has a tattoo of Mao on his arm. When I mentioned Don King, he said “That guy’s Chiang Kai-shek and I’m Mao, and I’m going to kick him out of China!” It was amazing. He even quoted the opening of my movie — “Learning through experience is the bitterest” — while he was watching our footage.
Filmmaker: The story must have registered with him immediately.
Chang: What’s amazing about boxing is that it has a universal scope. It really is a story about the underclass trying to break free and climb the ladder. And that’s the story of Mike Tyson, too.