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The Year of the Dragon calls for boldness, passion and power. What better way for Sundance to usher in the new year than a dragon dance up and down the aisles of the Yarrow Theatre?  Cavorting to drums and cymbals, the dragons were introducing the world premiere of the documentary, China Heavyweight.

China Heavyweight is the second feature-length doc from Montreal’s Yung Chang, who helmed the award-winning Up The Yangtze.  Chang follows coach Qi Moxiang and his two boxers, Zongli He and Yunfei Miao, in southwestern China as they train for the championships. The area they come from is poor, isolated and a breeding ground for kids looking for a way out. One way is boxing. These kids dream of being world stars like Mike Tyson, amazing given the fact that during his reign Chairman Mao Tse-tung banned pugilism for being violent and decadent.

Like Up The Yangtze, China Heavyweight is an observational doc in the style of Frederick Wiseman. It is beautifully shot and edited, preferring to eavesdrop on intimate conversations between anxious parents who want only the best for their sons, and the boys themselves who train 24/7.  Some will be disappointed that Chang doesn’t hype the Big Bout that climaxes the film, but his sympathy for his subjects is palpable. In one touching moment, a tearful mother weeps in a corner of the house, because she fears the beating her son will take in the ring.

Though Chang’s family hails from China, it was actually co-producer and sinophile Peter Wintonick who pitched the idea to him.  At the premiere, Wintonik and the other producers at EyeSteelFilm, also known for the superb Last Train Home, watched as the normally cool and relaxed Chang choked up during the Q&A when he introduced the coach as his “brother.” Several in the audience awarded Qi a standing ovation. Chang later reported that Qi was “in tears throughout that screening.”

Audience reaction was warm to Heavyweight though some inevitably compared it to Up The Yangtze, though the subject matter is miles apart.  Yangtze is about surviving colassal change in modern China while Heavyweight is about dreams.  After all, who doesn’t want to be a hero?

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