Turn on the Machine
Editor’s note: China Heavyweight opens 6 July at IFC Center.
“You must hit in the effective spots, the abdomen, chest, and head,” Zhao Zhong explains while he watches two boxers spar. “If it’s too soft, the ref won’t give you a point.” He demonstrates, pressing his fingers on a companion’s forehead in a gesture that’s obviously “too soft,” then holding out both his hands in a gesture of surrender. For Zhong, the Nike-sweatshirted director of a boxers’ training facility in Sichuan province, knowing how to play the game of boxing is as important as being able to throw a punch.
Zhong’s companion nods. Dressed in a plaid sport coat and a sporty fedora, he seems the epitome of the Western boxing fan. He and Zhong are surrounded, in this early scene in China Heavyweight, by women in cardigan sweaters and men in button down shirts. If they’re not the sort of crowd you see at most Western boxing matches, they are eager onlookers, visibly invested in the show.
That show is one focus of Yung Chang’s new documentary, the show the boxers put on and believe in. For two 19-year-old trainees especially, Yunfei Miao (described by his coach as “cocky”) and the more reserved Zongli He, boxing is a means to success, a way out of their families’ simple, rural lives. They’re working with state boxing coach Moxiang Qi, retired from boxing as the film begins—and glimpsed on a TV screen during his prime—but contemplating a comeback. Walking with his students, he describes the feeling of they should pursue in the ring: “Turn on the machine, be alive when you’re boxing,” he urges them. “Many people enter the ring feeling like they’re heading to the gallows. Remember that you are in the limelight. This is your concert, everyone’s there to cheer you on.”
In fact, this “concert” is only recently available in China, where Mao banned boxing in 1959, “for being too American and too violent,” an opening epigraph explains. When the ban was lifted in 1989, Chinese boxers took up the sport with hopes for national pride (both men and women are competing for China at the London Olympics later this month) as well as a way out of poverty. Even as Qi has fashioned a career out of boxing, rising early each morning, donning his Manchester United jacket and biking to the training facility or scouting new students at local middle schools, his mother maintains the hope that he’ll find a wife. “Whenever our relatives call,” she says, “They all worry about this. Maybe you should reconsider boxing.” Qi focuses on his chopsticks as he speaks: “I’ve been doing it for over 20 years, since elementary school,” he says, “It’s what I love most.”
As much as Qi embodies that love, Zhong offers a context for his mother’s worry. “Ordinary Chinese come to know boxing by comparing it to traditional Chinese culture,” he says over tea, “Especially Confucianism, which teaches us forbearance, kindness, and harmony, no striking back even if you’re hit, no talking back even if you’re scolded.” The boxers, young and old, see themselves following this model. “Boxing can train one’s perseverance,” Zhong explains, “It represents a spirit, it’s an art.”
Even as they pursue such discipline, the trainees keep focused on immediate rewards. Miao’s family farms tobacco, and his mother—filmed more than once at work in the field—remains unconvinced that boxing will provide her son with a viable living. Miao cites Pacquiao and Tyson, his face in close-up over a steaming bowl of rice. His family sits in a circle as they eat, no table, just steam rising in the space between them. Miao’s mother is skeptical. Though many young people are learning boxing, she says, the camera looking at her children from over her shoulder, “It seems we never hear of any boxer from Huili finding a job.”
Here Miao bows his head as he speaks. “I don’t want to stay in this backward place,” he says. “I want to go away to develop and make my own career.” The close focus blurs and sharpens as he rocks forward and back, intimating his dream, his determination, his unformulated future. Here the camera cuts to Miao’s father and then Miao, both silent as his wife speaks from off-screen. “We tackle all kinds of hardships in the hope that you’ll succeed,” she says. A cut to Miao’s mother shows her not looking at him as he answers, “I’ll tell you the good news once I become a boxing king.”
Miao feels encouraged in his ambitions to turn professional when he wins an amateur provincial tournament. “Thanks for your great coaching,” his mother tells Qi at ringside. Qi smiles, at once humble and experienced. “Perseverance wins in the end of the day,” he observes. And sometimes it doesn’t. As hard as a boxer may train, he knows, ambitions can be thwarted, and love for the spirit of boxing may not be enough to earn a living, to be a job.
It’s this risk that China Heavyweight makes so poignantly visible. For, even as Qi works with his students—girls and boys, some painfully young and expectant—he means to build their confidence and also teach them to protect themselves. Boxing is a “precious opportunity,” as Zhong describes it, but it’s demanding too. Moreover, it marks a shift in horizons, incorporating Western values and measures of value, reconceiving Chinese traditions. “You have blood on your face,” Qi admonishes one child. “You need to protect your face.” They learn to dance, to move their feet quickly and also to hit hard. The choreography is graceful and brutal, and as the frame keeps close on their faces, they’re also mesmerizing, vexed and triumphant, fierce and vulnerable—sometimes all at once.
In revealing all of these complexities, the movie makes clear as well the costs of boxing, the daily commitment and the disappointments. The coach advises one aspirant that turning professional is not a good idea, that he should focus instead on laying “a solid foundation” as an amateur. “To tell you the truth, in the pro world, you’d only be a third rate boxer,” Qi submits. “If you can mature through adversity, you will have a much wider path in the future.” The “if” seems key here. Certainly, all the boxers face adversity, as the film shows again and again. As in the West, however, that “wider path” is a function of multiple factors, including state sponsorship and familial needs. As much as the boxers may dream, their options are ever over-determined.