Using the curious subject of previously banned Western-style boxing in modern-day China as a way to speak about the tectonic cultural shifts going on in that transforming country, like the uncredited growth of capitalism under the guise of communism, China Heavyweight focuses on two student boxers, Miao Yunfei and He Zongli, as they train under their coach, Qi Moxiang, a thirtysomething veteran of the sport, to realize their dream of becoming the next Mike Tyson or Muhammad Ali. Legitimizing their fantasies, Qi and his own coach, Zhao Zhong, espouse that boxing is a healthy counterbalance to the meekness of Confucianism, teaching one the perseverance needed in a fiercely competitive society, ideas that He’s mother later complains misled her son unwisely away from his high academic standings and farmer-family life in the Huili county of Sichuan province. Such is the push and pull of the conflicting interests of widely different generations.
Although we never really get to know He or Miao, despite following them around vérité-style, director Yung Chang expertly captures the rays of Western culture bouncing off them. Besides repeatedly mentioning their desire, and proving their willingness to sacrifice everything for the glories of their American “boxing king” idols, it appears that every boxer surrounding them wears Nike or Adidas, and there’s a palpable sense that boxing’s vulgarity is considered nothing less than capitalism itself. The irony of this last part is felt when officials at boxing matches in at least a couple scenes can be overheard praising communism as being a great nation-rebuilder. There’s also a rift between the the hints of individualism that Western boxing brings and the collectivist values of the kids’ parents who see their children’s victories as useful only in that they can “bring happiness” to the family and village, as suggested in the scene wherein He tells his shocked mother than he somewhat selfishly “wants to explore the world.”
Not exactly revelatory in regard to its subjects, and as predictable and patent in its cultural analysis as a New York Times article on modern China, China Heavyweight is still well-made, with cinematographer Sun Shaoguang capturing a look and feel, also thanks to music by Olivier Alary, that reflect the moods of the unforthcoming boxers as they travel to train in new cities and compete in sweaty rings, and to visit their families back in their rural homes. If part of the appeal of the new Karate Kid is that it’s set and filmed in Beijing, China Heavyweight satisfies all the more, charting the country’s contradictory stature through an imported sport.