THE WEALTH GAP is emerging as one of the biggest political, cultural and moral issues of our era. Not only is America’s wealth gap widening until upward mobility seems impossible for millions of poor Americans—but the global wealth gap threatens to keep world peace a distant hope. That’s the larger drama that keeps us watching China Heavyweight, the latest feature-length documentary from director Yung Chang and Zeitgeist films.
Dirt-poor, rural Chinese kids are given opportunities at middle-school age to take a shot at wealth and success by competing in boxing camps. In 1959, Mao Tse Tung banned Western boxing for many years—as “too American and too violent,” as we learn in the opening minutes of this new documentary. But boxing is back now in the new China! As you watch this film, you will spot dozens of American icons from framed photos of Muhammad Ali to the Nike Swoosh surrounding these communities. That rising public interest in China frees educators, trainers and sports promoters to lure children toward the growing sport.
That description may make this movie sound like a simple tale of Good vs. Evil, of Western temptation threatening the health and wellbeing of China’s next generation. But filmmaker Yung Chang is a far better documentarian than that. Think of Hoop Dreams, the 1994 American documentary about poor, urban kids trying to make it in professional basketball. That documentary was showered with awards and has been listed, now, in the prestigious National Film Registry as an important depiction of American life.
Think of China Heavyweight as a kind of Asian Ring Dreams—as we watch stoic-looking young people pull on padded sparring helmets and thick gloves to train for their longshot of an Olympic berth. If you dislike sports films and perhaps hate boxing films, you should know that there is, indeed, some real boxing shown on screen. But much of this feature film takes us to the home communities and informal circles of friends and family that surround these boxers.
We are not alone in highly recommending this film for anyone interested in understanding global culture today. Variety magazine calls the movie “an intimate and affecting account of two aspiring boxers from the sticks training under the same hard-working coach. As he did in his Three Gorges Dam documentary Up the Yangtze, Chang examines how a particular strain of Western culture promises opportunity and prosperity for Chinese youth, even as it remains a continual source of intergenerational tension.”
In Film Comment magazine, Meredith Slifkin writes: “China Heavyweight isn’t just a story about boxing or about three individuals and their personal relationships to the sport. It’s about the significance of a traditionally Western sport’s emergence in a changing Eastern culture, the philosophy of chasing a dream—and the way that the trajectory of this trio comes to represent the cultural shifts of a disappearing rural China.”
If you like this film, you will also want to know about a related documentary about the huge annual migration across China for the New Year’s holidays, called Last Train Home, which also shows us the tensions in China between life in the nation’s industrial centers and fragile survival in rural homes.
REVIEW BY READTHESPIRIT EDITOR DAVID CRUMM
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.