Wednesday, July 4, 2012

CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT: Yung Chang takes another look at youth and careers in China

Among the facts that yours truly did not know: In 1959 Chairman Mao banned western-style boxing in China because it was too American and too violent. In 1989, that ban was finally lifted. Yung Chang, the Canadian filmmaker of Chinese descent who, a few years ago, brought us Up the Yangtze, is back again with a new film -- CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT -- that begins with a statement of the above facts and then, along with a most interesting backdrop (in the former it was the havoc wrought by the Three Gorges Damn, in this one it's boxing in China), manages to look somewhat closely at China's young people and the career choices they face and make. These are not much -- and probably much worse now than five years ago when Yangtze was made.

Mr. Chang, shown at left, manages in both films to look at two generations, parent and child; in addition, in this new one, he observes a boxing teacher, Qi Moxiang, who, if he had children, would fit easily into the parental mode. As a filmmaker, Chang keeps himself well out of the picture but his camera smack in the faces and bodies of his protagonists. He is not given to a lot of identification, so that sometimes, we're not always sure who's who and what's what. But eventually we figure most of it out. He and his camera wander and we follow along dutifully, observing some of the children who have "volunteered" and then been "selected" to participate in a program that just might offer up some new Olympic-style heroes, both boys and girls, chosen from the ever more impoverished farm communities found -- in this case, in the Sichuan province.

One young man in particular, Miao Yunfei (above, working on the family's tobacco farm, and below, wondering if he has made the right choices) has some talent -- and is clearly dying to get ahead fast -- but may not have the patience for long-term practice and devotion to the boxing life in China (Mike Tyson's his hero: yikes!). He is counseled by his coach to refrain from going "pro" until he really has the skills mastered. His mom wants him to stay on the farm, of course, but he clearly imagines that he's made for more glamorous stuff.

Coach Qi also longs for some of that old glamour; before we know it, he's in training for a "comeback" fight (he's shown below, left) in which he is outclassed, outmatched and outfought rather alarmingly. Throughout all this we get bits and pieces of the lives of these people, but nothing registers as strongly as it did in the filmmaker's Yangtze movie. I am not certain that my own lack of interest in boxing prevents me from fully appreciating Chang's film. Thught it's a sport I have long hated, I have still taken well to certain boxing movies now and again: The Set Up, Rocco and His Brothers, The Fighter. But by the end of this documentary, while I was somewhat moved by these people and their predicaments, I felt I could have been given a lot more information, considering the film's 94 minutes of running time.

Another student, He Zongli, below, appears more of a team player and a good Communist. What does that mean? While Chang would seem to leave "politics" outside the frame of his film, his inclusion of a short scene at a sporting event counters this quite tellingly. Here, the speaker announces the following: "There is no China without the Communist Party. Only Socialism can help develop China. This is an unchangeable truth..." Given what we see and hear in China Heavyweight, this seems but the reverse of the pro-Capitalism/
Hooray-for-Wall-Street agitprop meal we're constantly fed by The New York Post and Fox News.

The choices offered the young people we see here, as in Up the Yangtze, seem paltry at best, designed to help the state above all, while sucking the people dry. Little wonder that Miao hightails it to the big city and a dead-end construction job. The choice between growing tobacco and boxing (imagine two more smart, healthy, environmentally-friendly endeavors! -- unless you are Olympic-caliber, of course) is a lose-lose situation. And the economy -- here, there, everywhere -- just grows worse.

China Heavyweight -- from Zeitgeist Films -- opens Friday, July 6, in New York City at the IFC Center and will open in another ten cities around the country in the weeks to come. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

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