I’m not fond of the sport of boxing and that’s probably one of the few instances where I agree with Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Mao outlawed Western style boxing in 1959 as being “too American and too violent” we learn from the subtitles at the beginning of Yung Chang’s “China Heavyweight.” Yet 30 years later things have changed and boxing is apparently booming in China and other parts of Asia. This is not Rocky story. “China Heavyweight” is a tale of desperation, of the poor attempting to raise themselves up though the sport of boxing.
“China Heavyweight” opens today at the Laemmle Music Hall 3, and tomorrow (21 July 2012) at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7. In Pasadena, it only runs for two days, Saturday and Sunday.
While Yang’s “Up the Yangtze” was contemplative, “China Heavyweight is starkly brutal. Yet what can one expect when one sees the kind of life the poor lead in China? Fred Wiseman’s 2010 documentary “Boxing Gym” brought us Westerners who choose boxing despite all the warning of American doctors about the long-term damage of blows to the head.
Imagine recruiters coming to an elementary school and asking the children if they want to be boxers. Do the children really know what it means to box? Do their parents understand the possible pitfalls? They might remember Muhammed Ali when he was young, but do they know what he is now?
In this case, the recruiting begins in the Sichuan province. We know the area for its fiercely spicy food, but the Three Gorges Dam project will prevent the flooding of the Sichuan Basin and the effect on the Yangtze River and its population was the topic of Yang’s “Up the Yangtze.” Huili county is under Liangshan Ye Autonomous Prefecture and although the county was severely affected by the 2008 Panzhihua earthquake, this documentary doesn’t touch on that.
One of the recruiters warns the kids that if they don’t learn boxing, they’ll end up growing tobacco and be nothing but their mother’s child. There’s a boxing exhibition on the playground black top. Qi Moxiang, a boxing champion tells the children they shouldn’t be afraid to step into the boxing ring, “Remember you are in the limelight…That’s your concert.”
We learn that the boys want to have fans, fame and fortune like rock stars or boxing stars like Oscar de la Hoya, like Mike Tyson. What the girls want, we do not know although we seem them giggling with the coach when he falls asleep in their dorm room. What happens to these girls and how do they feel about the use of women in bathing suits to show the round numbers?
The Chinese have different training techniques that seem borrowed from their traditions of dance and acrobatics. Their partnered practice steps one guesses to give them stamina and lightness on their feet, the spinning in circles to give them awareness to steady themselves when they are dizzy and the kicks to the stomach to toughen them up could become part of a Rocky-esque tale. However, seeing young boys boxing with gloves but without protective headgear on an outdoor basketball court runs in the direction of child abuse rather than sportsman-like discipline. Yet we see nothing as cruel as the discipline shown in the movie, “Farewell My Concubine.” Maybe this is progress?
Qi is in his thirties and has been boxing over thirty years, since elementary school. He’s single, something that makes his family fret. His nose is flattened, but his ears aren’t cauliflower.
The boys keep training diaries and might stay up past lights out time, talking to each other or so someone on the other end of their cell phones. We don’t know what the girls do or if they have boyfriends or if relationships form between the boys and girls who are kept in separate dorms.
Although the movie starts with a recruitment trip, the real focus of this documentary is on Qi Moxiang, a hero of sorts to the children and a local celebrity as well as two older recruits: Miao Yunfei and He Zongli.
Miao tells his mother quite clearly that he wants to find any means to get out of Huili. “I don’t want to stay in this backward place,” he says. His family works a tobacco farm and it’s hard labor. The crop is hand-picked and carried on the backs of the workers. Water must be carried in two buckets. As assessed by the coaches, Miao is “different from the others. He has one advantage. He’s a competitive athlete who likes to show off.”
Yet at one time, five years earlier, he was a top student in his class and having devoted himself to boxing, he’s missed out on critical years of academic training.
He Zongli has other issues. “Before, he had some mental issues. He worries about not fighting well. It is important to work on his mental game, the coaches explain.
With the Olympics almost upon us, it’s important to remember the meaning of sports. For some nations, success in a sport could change the future of a family, but behind that potential is the lost childhood of almost-rans and those who never make it to national level teams. For Wiseman’s “Boxing Gym,” it was a matter of perspiration for recreation, but for Yang’s boxers in “China Heavyweight,” it’s perspiration out of desperation. Don’t expect a happy ending here in this 89-minutes. In Mandarin Chinese and Sichuanese with English subtitles.