Banned during the peak years of the Cultural Revolution, boxing has slowly become an integral part of Chinese society since its reincorporation following the December 1979 visit of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Nowadays, the sport is a beloved national pastime and a staple of several schools’ curricula. Yung Chang’s captivating documentary opens in Szechuan Province, where the main subject, Qi Moxiang (a former professional boxer), recruits and coaches promising pugilists, though he yearns to step back in the ring. The film also follows two of Qi’s longtime students, Miao Yunfei and He Zongli, farmers’ sons who each has the (fairly undisciplined) drive to go for Olympic gold.
The most devastating punches tend to be those thrown outside the ring—in the way Miao’s and He’s mothers less-than-delicately register their displeasure with their sons’ profession, or how Qi sadly yet stoically reacts to news that he is losing one of his star pupils. But though there are enough crises to satisfy viewers looking for a Sino Rocky, China Heavyweight isn’t merely about the fighters’ personal struggles. Like Chang’s 2007 nonfiction feature, Up the Yangtze, the movie uses its micro-narrative to offer a subtle macro-critique of the state of modern China—a place where effusive national pride can’t entirely counterbalance the harsh social and economic realities that prevent each of these fighters from fully realizing his potential. It’s in between the lines that this movingly perceptive film scores a TKO.
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