In 1959 Chairman Mao banned boxing in China because he deemed it to be too western and too brutal. In 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin wall, the ban was lifted. Much to the dismay of westerners who have become accustomed to their hegemonic influence, China has been developing into an economic juggernaut for quite some time now. Nevertheless, it’s quite a big country. It contains multitudes. China Heavyweight examines the lives of three boxers whose lives have been formed by a country in transition.
The star of the film is Qi Moxiang, a former contender for the Chinese Olympic team. In his late 30s, Qi has given up professional boxing. He teaches the sport in a provincial school in the agrarian Huili county in the Sichuan province of China. The parents of his students farm tobacco and believe that their children would have better lives elsewhere. In this town even professional boxers smoke cigarettes. The residents want to escape this ‘backward place’.
The permeation of western culture may contribute to their unrest. Qi wears a Manchester United jersey. One of the students, Miao Yunfei idolizes Mike Tyson and dreams of becoming a ‘boxing king’ like him. He fantasizes about entering the ring to thunderous applause. He sees boxing as a way to become idolized. He brags about his conquests with women. For Miao, showmanship is the wellspring of his competitive drive. Despite the bravado normally associated with boxers, there is a humble and mostly quiet desperation in Qi’s students. The prospect of fame and perhaps even being on camera inspire a timid reverence in them.
The unhappy question looming over the film is what is to become of these kids if they do not become professional boxers? They have chosen to curtail their studies in order to devote their lives to boxing. Most, if not all of them, will not be able to make a living as a state sponsored athlete. Even more unrealistic is the dream of becoming a ‘boxing king’. This means that they will almost certainly end up doing backbreaking labor in the tobacco fields with their parents for the rest of their lives. Boxing, then, is a poisonous opportunity. The unlikelihood of success makes it something of a reckless gamble. Miao’s mother laments his decision to take up boxing in the light of his academic promise.
The societal pressure the kids face often seems to eclipse their agency. Narcissism and the project of the self seem to have evolved in a China that is porous to capitalist influence. Western values have permeated even into provincial Chinese culture. The pressure is not only cultural but political. Government officials are seen promoting the ideal of olympic athletes in the great tradition of nations before them that have used venues like the olympics to ignite nationalistic sentiment. The most compelling force drawing these kids to box though is Qi himself. He is charismatic, magnetic and kind.
Qi’s story buttresses those of his students and their families. He retired from professional boxing five years before the movie begins after he lost a qualifying match to make the Chinese olympic team. During the course of the film he is compelled to re-enter professional boxing. His motivation for doing so is never explained. His mother harangues him for not having a girlfriend. His friends complain of never seeing him. The female students all giggle and whisper when Qi is around.
In the penultimate scene, Qi fights a Japanese fighter in a kind of miniature olympics. Countries from all over the world offer fighters to contend in a bout in China. The buildup to the fight echoes the ethos of later Rocky films, where the aging fighter’s determination promises to overcome the grave inevitability of the biological clock. This film, however, does not end like Rocky. The older Qi is no match for the spry Japanese fighter and the former’s corner is forced to throw in the towel at the sight of his exhaustion after a few rounds. His students, who have made their way to the fight are mortified. Like the other dreams in this film, Qi’s is stillborn. Unfortunately, there is no depiction of the emotional blowback from the loss.
While China Heavyweight touches on interesting issues, it doesn’t explore any of them in depth. Neither of Qi’s two main students become professional boxers and we do not learn what becomes of them. There’s an ideological divide between the two. Miao decides to leave the olympic training camp he has moved to. He plans on moving to the big city and trying his hand at becoming a professional ‘boxing king’ despite Qi’s warnings that at this stage he would be a third rate fighter at best. Qi’s other student, He Zongli, stays on the Olympic track. The last we see of him is his loss in a match that would allow him to move up the rungs of the national team and leave the provinces. Both young men’s stories are left unresolved.
Filmmaker Yung Chang shies away from the pernicious elements of the rise of Chinese boxing. When Qi and his students are young and full of potential, their dreams of glory are inspiring. As they grow up and face the prospect of failure the wonder in their eyes dulls. When they fail, the filmmaker does not follow them. There’s no examination of their dreams undone. The film’s optimistic sheen comes off as innocent. This myopia hides the true conflict at play in the subjects’ lives.
The DVD comes with 30 minutes of deleted footage. The unincluded scenes focus primarily on the female students and peasant life in the provinces. Both are welcome additions. There’s a moving scene of a young female boxer in tears as she describes the life of her migrant worker parents digging the earth day after day. Two farmers are shown catching pathetically small fish in baskets. There is some redundant footage of Miao discussing the accolades and women that will come his way once he is famous. One clip juxtaposes the boredom the students feel in the classroom with the manic energy and camaraderie of the training camps. This scene could have enhanced the film. It would have helped highlight the temptation that boxing presents. The deleted scenes reinforce the imperative on the students to leave the provinces. They do not tread any new ground not explored in the film.