Canadian filmmaker Yung Chan, whose previous documentary was the terrific “Up the Yangtze” (2007), comes through with the equally strong “China Heavyweight,” which is only ostensibly about boxing. It’s really about the ways in which Chinese westernization clashes with the traditionalism of Confucian teachings. It’s about competition versus piety.
Boxing had been banned by Chairman Mao and only made legal in the late 1980s. One of the schools where it is taught is the one in Huili County in southwestern Sichuan Province where “China Heavyweight” takes place. Two boxing talent scouts have arrived to survey the scene: program director Zhao Zhong, who has the pacific demeanor of a Zen master, and coach Qi Moxiang, who has dedicated his life to teaching after being a highly ranked boxer in China.
Chan focuses on Qi and two 19-year-old boys who show talent, Yunfei Miao, who idolizes Mike Tyson and loves the pageant of the sport, and his best friend, He Zhongli, who is more contemplative. He’s mother, who toils with her husband in the tobacco fields from which the boy wishes to escape, cries at the bruises her son receives in the ring and wishes he would stop. His father teaches that modesty in life is more important than victory.
Miao’s mother wonders why her son, such a promising student, has chosen boxing as a way out of the fields. Her distaste for the sport is more pragmatic than spiritual.
Coach Qi decides to fight professionally again, supposedly to inspire his students but more likely because he wants to regain some glory. (At 38, he still lives with his mother.) This “Rocky”-like development comes to a head when Qi faces a younger, fitter Japanese opponent. Throughout, Chang gives the documentary a flowing narrative momentum. He understands that documentaries, like fiction films, are primarily about storytelling. Only the means are different.
Boxing as a way out of the slums (or in this case, the fields) has been a movie staple for almost as long as there have been movies. In “China Heavyweight,” we have a new variant on an old theme, but the idealism and heartbreak on view are timeless and universal. Grade: A- (Unrated.)