Judge Daryl Loomis is the sweet scientist.
To Be Tried and Tested a Thousand Times Overå‹‡nglish translation of the original Chinese title.
As in Up the Yangtze, the first documentary directed by Yung Chang, China Heavyweight focuses a sharp eye on a changing and modernizing China. His first film took a broader, more political stance on the destruction of the environment to make way for increased industry and suburban living. Chinese Heavyweight has a much more modest scope, but gets at many of the same principles.
Here, Chang heads into rural China to look at the country's up-and-coming amateur boxing program, mostly through the lens of one trainer and two young boxers. The idea of boxing in China is a relatively new one, as Mao Zedong banned the sport decades ago because of its violence. After the Chairman died, though, China went full throttle in an attempt to make their name on the world stage. This has manifested itself in industry, manufacturing, and many other avenues, and now, part of their focus has turned to the sweet science.
In a practice similar to the extremely successful Cuban boxing program, children are plucked from mostly rural homes by trainers and put into intensive training programs with an eye to turning them into major world competitors and, very importantly, into Olympic champions. Boys and girls are pulled in fairly equal measure and, at least in the film's portrayal, the training is essentially the same for either gender, but the film doesn't focus on the female combatants in any real way. Instead, we find two good friends who have been in the program for five years, are now seventeen, and have a big decision to make. Do they have the strength and endurance to continue working away from their families, striving for some kind of greatness, or will they return to their homes and take the mantle that was originally laid out for them, whether that's in manufacturing or tobacco farming. Both ways are hard and Chang makes it clear that neither decision is right or wrong, only the natural progression of all of these athletes.
There is much philosophy of combat on display here, and a lot of good discussion about boxing's difficulty and beauty. The satisfying, but taxing training regimens are juxtaposed with the heartbreak of losing when you've worked so hard, and that all works well. It fails, however, where Up the Yangtze succeeds most, and that's in the sheer quantity of interesting material in the film. Because Chang's previous film was a multi-subject affair, no one story wears out its welcome. Chang seems to only have a few things to say in China Heavyweight, and it wears itself out pretty quickly. Had there been a broader focus, or simply the stories of more individuals, I might have felt a little more floored by it, as I was with the previous film, but instead I spent a lot of time wondering how much longer it was going to take. It's unfortunate, to be sure, but it's still a solid piece on a subject I know little about.
China Heavyweight arrives on disc from Zeitgeist Films in an edition that falls in line with the label's typical release. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image looks very good, with very pretty landscapes and good clarity throughout. Cinematographer Shaoguang Sun takes good advantage of the mountainous locations and the transfer represents this very well, with no errors and solid detail. The stereo sound mix isn't nearly as strong, but it doesn't have to be. The important thing, the dialog, is consistently clear, while the music sits much deeper in the background. This kind of documentary doesn't need a big dynamic mix, and it doesn't have one.
The only extra on the disc is half an hour of deleted footage that brings us more interviews and more fight footage. It doesn't add a whole lot to the film, but it's good to have there. The only other thing on the disc is a trailer.
China Heavyweight is a step down in both scope and interest from Yung Chang's first film, but it's still a strong documentary. There is so much focus on family that it feels very personal and succeeds based on this and the sympathetic cast of characters Chang employs. Mostly, it's a great window into a world the west rarely sees and a realistic look at one of the most challenging sports, both to endure and succeed. It's not the best documentary one can find, but the film is well worth watching.
China Heavyweight wins by majority decision.
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