Reviews

Kings for a Day: 'China Heavyweight'

The unhappy question looming over this film is what is to become of these kids if they do not become professional boxers? they will almost certainly end up doing backbreaking labor in the tobacco fields with their parents for the rest of their lives.


China Heavyweight

Director: Yung Chang
Cast: Qi Moxiang, He Zongli, Miao Yunfei, Zhao Zhong
Distributor: EyeSteelFilm
Release date: 2012-01-20

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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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