Canada, China (mainland), Released docs — 05/11/2012 12:25 PM

China Heavyweight: Documentary uses boxing to examine China (The Montreal Gazette)

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Interview with Ottawa-based Yi Han, boxing coach Qi Moxiang and director Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze)


MONTREAL – When Ottawa-based film producer Yi Han first called boxing coach Qi Moxiang on his cellphone in rural China, he was at a wedding. Their conversation lasted more than an hour; by the time it was over, she knew she had her man.

“He had this trust,” Han said. “I kept asking, ‘Why would you trust me? You don’t know me, and I start asking all sorts of questions about you, your (students), your school.’ We had a very good conversation … I could tell he was so passionate. “When I realized he had quit professional boxing and had been training kids for three or four years without getting any payment, I wondered, ‘What’s driving him?’ I told (my partners at Montreal documentary company EyeSteelFilm), ‘It’s very necessary for us to go meet him in person.’”

Han, Qi and director Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) sat in the EyeSteelFilm offices earlier this week to discuss China Heavyweight, the bracingly intimate documentary following Qi and two of his star students as they pursue their dreams and confront their limits. The film goes beyond the parameters of traditional boxing narratives to explore deeper issues of three people trying to find a place in their country’s fast-changing social climate.

“What really interested me in this story is the multilayered metaphor of boxing,” Chang said. “The sport was once banned (until 1986) for being too western, too violent and too American. Here you have a country pushing to become more open and to reform, to be progressive and to modernize, along with a story about individualism. “Boxing is defined by Mike Tyson and the idea of being this brash, outlandish and very creative character. To me, that seemed parallel to the process of these individuals in China who find themselves clashing against tradition. In coach Qi and his boxing school, I could see these layers coming out.”

Qi was involved in boxing from the sport’s early days in China. He started training at 11, joined the Sichuan Provincial team in 1991 at age 14, and graduated to the National Team in 1998. He left amateur boxing in 2001, becoming China’s first professional boxer in 2004. In 2006, frustrated by the limits of pro boxing in China, he turned to coaching full-time.

“He’s like the Last Hero,” Chang said, “a Chinese hero trying to instill moral character and virtue into these kids (who are) bombarded with materialism and ideas of greed … Qi is preparing them for life in a modern China.”

The Huili Boxing Team has churned out over 200 provincial champions in its 22-year history, more than two dozen under Qi’s tutelage. For him, it’s about more than just boxing. It is an approach to life.

“I want to teach (my students) to be persistent,” he said, “not to be afraid of losing. Boxing is a sport where you really have to fight for yourself when you’re in the ring. You shouldn’t be afraid of your opponent, which means you shouldn’t be afraid of anything. The more you fail, the more courageous you become.”

Qi provides the film’s dramatic climax when he decides to return to the ring to take on Japan’s Akihiro Matsumoto for the Asia Super Bantamweight title. With friends, fellow coaches and students watching – and the memory of his late father to whom he dedicates the fight – it is a heart-wrenching battle.

Present at the film’s recent screenings at both the Sundance and (Toronto’s) Hot Docs film festivals, Qi was appreciative of the warm response.

“The film is a very true portrait of me and the people around me,” he said. “Coming from a small village in southwest China, to have the opportunity to be here and see that the audience loves our story and respects us so much was very touching.”

This is Chang’s second documentary set in China. His first film, 2007’s internationally acclaimed Up the Yangtze, followed a peasant family whose way of life is turned upside down with the controversial damming of the famous Yangtze river. It’s a long way to travel for the Oshawa, Ont.,-born filmmaker; and yet, the country is close to home.
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There’s more to learn, it seems. Chang is currently writing the script for Eggplant, “a fiction-documentary hybrid about wedding photography in China, which is a whole world unto itself.”

But first, a change of pace; his next film is not related to China at all. A cinematic adaptation of Montrealer Adam Gollner’s book The Fruit Hunters, it follows the history of fruit and the stories of fruit fanatics the world over. The documentary is already in the editing stage and is due for release in the fall. “It’s a departure from the sad, cinéma vérité movie,” he said. “If I made a disaster film with Up the Yangtze, and an action film with China Heavyweight, this one is a comedy – hopefully. You never know what sadness I have in my heart.”

Full article and film review in The Montreal Gazette

SOURCE: (10/5/2012)

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