Qi Moxiang vs. Akihiro Matsumoto. In Huili County, Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan Province, as seen in CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT, a film by Yung Chang. Photo credit (2011): Liu Yang. Courtesy Zeitgeist Films. All rights reserved.
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China Heavyweight (2012)
Opened: 07/06/2012 Limited
|IFC Center||07/06/2012 - 07/19/2012||14 days|
|Music Hall 3||07/20/2012 - 07/26/2012||7 days|
Trailer: Click for trailer
Genre: Chinese/Canadian Sports Documentary (Chinese and Sichuanese w/English subtitles)
Award-winning filmmaker Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) returns to China for another riveting documentary on that country's ever-changing economic landscape--this time through the lens of sports. In China Heavyweight, Chang follows the charismatic Qi Moxiang, a former boxing star and state coach who recruits young fighting talent from the impoverished farms and villages across Sichuan province. A select few boys (and girls) are sent to national training centers, with the hope of discovering China's next Olympic heroes. But will these potential boxing champions leave it all behind to be the next Mike Tyson? Their rigorous training, teenage trials and family tribulations are expertly intertwined with Coach Qi's own desire to get back in the ring for one more shot at victory. Cinematically rich and intimately observed, China Heavyweight is all at once thrilling sports drama, astute social commentary and a beautifully crafted portrait of an athlete.
For someone like myself, who grew up in two worlds, it is inevitable that you love kung-fu movies (the Chinese side) and boxing movies (the American side). From On the Waterfront to Million Dollar Baby or 36 Chambers of Shaolin to Enter the Dragon, movies about boxing and Kung Fu transcend action and become metaphors for the challenges of life and the willpower of the human spirit. I've always wanted to make an action film. Somehow, my decision to make China Heavyweight began with the idea of melding the two genres of Kung Fu and boxing into an "action documentary."
I chose to tell this story not only because the subject was boxing, but the story was about respect, honor, and perseverance--virtues at their greatest test in a changing China.
The genesis of China Heavyweight originated in an atmosphere in which the last decade has witnessed the incredible ascent of Chinese boxing prowess in the competitive ring; rising even before the Beijing 2008 Olympics. By 2008, Zou Shiming, the most successful Chinese amateur boxer, had already won two world titles and an Olympic gold medal in the Light Flyweight division. China also dominated the Women's World Championships, the highest profile tournament for women's boxing. In 2008, as China hosted the Summer Olympic Games, traditional media coverage and China's nascent online blogosphere provided a flood of inspiration, stories, characters and research information--all of which became an impetus for further investigation. I partnered with Chinese co-producer Yuanfang Media in Beijing with producers Yi Han and Lixin Fan (director of Last Train Home); the first step was an initial research phase. After web searches, scouring of newspaper articles and inquiries, our team discovered a hot bed of amateur boxing in Southern Sichuan Province. We also found a boxing school, which was a center of national excellence and had produced 200 champions in twenty years. Yi Han was able to establish contact and get permission for a crew to visit Huili for a research shoot in December 2009. This would begin a two-year schedule of filming in Huili County, Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan Province, from winter 2009 to summer 2011.
I had a smooth journey with my subjects. On our initial research trip, we followed the advice of the coaches. They recommended we follow Miao Yunfei and He Zongli. Both were boxing hopefuls, but from different backgrounds. Miao's family was quite successful as tobacco farmers. He Zongli's family were poorer subsistence farmers. Their personalities were polar opposites. Where Miao was outgoing; He Zongli was quiet and introverted. These traits also translated to their fighting personas. I found this very cinematic. I think we have many great reaction shots that tell a lot about what the subject is thinking. From Up the Yangtze, I learned that your subject doesn't have to say much in order to have depth; I like the story in unspoken silences. I also followed a bunch of other subjects: other boxing hopefuls and new female recruits (which unfortunately didn't lead anywhere; because they were novice boxers and just starting, there was no denouement). As seems to be the case, it wasn't until about one third into the shoot that we honed our focus to the key subjects. We didn't decide to focus on Coach Qi until the beginning of the editing process, where we continued shooting with him for the climax of the film.
Thankfully were we able to form a shared trust with our subjects very quickly. In fact, when my producers and I went on an initial research trip to Huili, it turned out Zhao Zhong (the Master Coach) didn't know we were an independent film company. He thought we were from the national broadcaster, CCTV. He had prepared a giant red banner welcoming CCTV and pulled out the red carpet for us. After some initial confusion, everything worked out. Eventually they learned that I won a Golden Horse (the equivalent of a Chinese Oscar) for Up the Yangtze. They also loved hosting my producer, Peter Wintonick. From that day on, we never had any problems with filming. Master Zhao was accommodating on every level. It was an unprecedented filming experience--extremely cooperative and open.
Not surprisingly, there were roadblocks during filming. One time we camped out for three days in the lobby of a five-star hotel in Tianjin, a city north of Beijing, hoping to meet the great Mike Tyson. He had been hired for three days to be a boxing ambassador for the first WBO title fight in China. It was a slow process, first meeting with Tyson's entourage. Every time we thought we had a chance, we'd hear back from his posse that Mike wasn't available. We had reached a point of no return, where we'd been waiting for so long that we couldn't turn around and head back home. Finally on the last day, one of Tyson's entourage sent us on a mission to find Shaw Brothers kung-fu DVDs, pomegranates and a toenail clipper. We couldn't find any of those items. Instead, I gave the assistant a copy of Up the Yangtze. Around 11PM that evening, just as we were packing it in to head home with our heads hung low, we saw Tyson and his team exiting the elevators and heading through the lobby. Now, over these three days I also had with me a small puppy that I found in a dumpster in Huili. I named him Laji (trash). Laji was also fed up with the inhospitable hotel and long waiting, and so he started yelping.... Tyson heard the puppy and re-directed his entourage towards us to see Laji! I had my entire crew with me. So while Tyson was greeting my mutt, they had set up my laptop with rushes from the film. It was at this point that Tyson was complaining how he couldn't get out of bed to change the DVD that was playing in his hotel room. He had described some movie about a big dam and started quoting the opening quotation from Up the Yangtze: "Learning through experience is the bitterest." I told him that Up the Yangtze was my film, and then asked if he'd be interested in seeing some of China Heavyweight. He okayed it and plunked himself down in the leather chair. I sat on the floor next to him like a child waiting to hear a story. We played the demo for him and immediately he started cussing at the first image, which showed Don King in China speaking in Mandarin and talking about boxing in China. Tyson was livid. Unbeknownst to many, Tyson is well read in Chinese history. He started comparing Don King to Chiang Kai-Shek, the KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) leader who fled from Mao Zedong to Taiwan in 1949. Tyson pointed to his tattoo, told us that he was Mao and said that he'll kick Don King out of China. He concluded by telling us that he will go to Huili to teach our kids to fight! It was all very exciting. Alas, he never made it to Huili but his heart was in the right place. I'd love to send him a DVD of the film. Moral of the story? Always have a cute puppy in your arsenal. Laji is still with me today in Canada.
Combing through more than 200 hours of footage, I've created China Heavyweight into a more a human drama than a "message" documentary. We use the genre of boxing to tell a bigger story. Embedded within the drama between the two students and the coach is a commentary on modern China. In China, you fight for your country; but with boxing, the bottom line is that you're fighting for yourself. This story becomes a metaphor for nationalism vs. individualism. But at the heart of the film, it's really about the relationship between Coach Qi and his students. It's enough to walk away with a greater sense of honor about the role of mentors and teachers, and about perseverance. I do believe it's a universal story.
-- Yung Chang, Director