In central China, a Master coach recruits poor rural teenagers and turns them into Western-style boxing champions. Through hard work and discipline, these boys and girls come of age, trained in the art of boxing and the game of life. They are filled with Olympic dreams, hoping to become China’s next amateur heroes.
But the pull of professionalism also weighs upon their shoulders. The top student boxers face dramatic choices as they graduate – should they fight for the collective good as amateurs or for themselves and their own personal gain as professionals?
For someone like myself, who grew up in two worlds, it is inevitable that you love kung-fu movies (the Chinese side) and boxing movies (the American side). From “On the Waterfront” to “Million Dollar Baby” or “36 Chambers of Shaolin” to “Enter the Dragon”, movies about boxing and kung-fu transcend action and become metaphors for the challenges of life and the willpower of the human spirit. I’ve always wanted to make an action film. Somehow, my decision to make “China Heavyweight” began with the idea of melding two genres of kung-fu and boxing into an ‘action documentary’.
I chose to tell this story not only because the subject was boxing, but the story was about respect, honor, and perseverance – virtues at their greatest test in a changing China.
The genesis of “China Heavyweight” originated in an atmosphere in which the last decade has witnessed the incredible ascent of Chinese boxing prowess in the competitive ring; rising even before the Beijing 2008 Olympics. By 2008 Zou Shiming, the most successful Chinese amateur boxer, had already won two world titles and an Olympic gold medal in the light flyweight division. China also dominated the Women’s World Championships, the highest profile tournament for women’s boxing. In 2008, as China hosted the Summer Olympic Games, traditional media coverage and China’s nascent online blogosphere provided a flood of inspiration, stories, characters and research information; all of which became an impetus for further investigation. I partnered with Chinese co-producer Yuanfang Media in Beijing with producers Yi Han and Lixin Fan (director of “Last Train Home”), the first step was an initial research phase. After internet searches, scouring of newspaper articles and inquiries, our team discovered a hot bed of amateur boxing in Southern Sichuan Province. We also found a boxing school, which was a center of national excellence and had produced 200 champions in 20 years. Yi Han was able to establish contact and get permission for a crew to visit Huili for a research shoot in December 2009. This would begin a 2 year schedule of filming in Huili County, Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan Province; starting in Winter 2009, and concluding in Summer 2011.
I had a smooth journey with my subjects. On our initial research trip, we followed the advice of the coaches. They recommended we follow Miao Yunfei and He Zongli. Both were boxing hopefuls, but from different backgrounds. Miao’s family was quite successful as tobacco farmers. He Zongli’s family were poorer subsistence farmers. Their personalities were polar opposites. Where Miao was outgoing, He Zongli was quiet and introverted. These traits also translated to their fighting personas. I found this very cinematic. I think we have many great reaction shots that tell a lot about what the subject is thinking. From “Up the Yangtze”, I learned that your subject doesn’t have to say much in order to have depth; I like the story in unspoken silences. I also followed a bunch of other subjects; other boxing hopefuls and new female recruits (which unfortunately didn’t lead anyway because they were novice boxers and just starting there was no denouement). As seems to be the case, it wasn’t until about one third into the shoot that we honed our focus to the key subjects. We didn’t decide to focus on Coach Qi until the beginning of the editing process where we decided to continue shooting with him for the climax of the film.
Thankfully were we able to form a shared trust with our subjects very quickly. In fact, when my producers and I went on an initial research trip to Huili. it turned out the Zhao Zhong (Master Coach) didn’t know we were an independent film company. He thought we were from the national broadcaster, CCTV. He had prepared a giant red banner welcoming CCTV and pulled-out the red carpet for us. After some initial confusion, everything worked out. Eventually they learned that I won a Golden Horse (equivalent of a Chinese Oscar) for “Up the Yangtze”. They also loved hosting my producer, Peter Wintonick . From that day on, until the conclusion, we never had any problems with filming. Master Zhao was accommodating on every level. It was an unprecedented filming experience – extremely cooperative and open.
Not surprisingly, there were roadblocks during filming. One time we camped out for three days in the lobby of a 5 star hotel in Tianjin, a city north of Beijing, hoping to meet the great Mike Tyson who was hired for three days to be a boxing ambassador for the first WBO title fight in China. It was a slow process of first meeting Tyson’s entourage. Every time we thought we had a chance, we’d hear back from his posse that Mike wasn’t available. We had reached a point of no return, where we’d been waiting for so long that we couldn’t turn around and head back home. Finally on the last day, one of Tyson’s entourage sent us on a mission to find Shaw Brothers kung-fu dvds, pomegranates and a toe nail clipper. We couldn’t find any of those items. Instead, I gave the assistant a copy of “Up the Yangtze”. Around 11pm that evening, just as we were packing it in to head home, with our heads hung low, we saw Tyson and his team exiting the elevators and heading through the lobby. Now, through these 3 days, I also had with me a small puppy that I found in a dumpster in Huili. I named him Laji (trash). Laji was also fed-up with the inhospitable hotel and long waiting and so he started yelping… Tyson heard the puppy and re-directed his entourage towards us to see Laji! I had my entire crew with me. So while Tyson was greeting my mutt, they had set-up my laptop with rushes from the film. It was at this point that Tyson was complaining how he couldn’t get out of bed to change the dvd that was playing in his hotel room. He had described some movie about a big dam and started quoting the opening quotation from “Up the Yangtze”: ‘Learning through experience is the bitterest’. I told him that “Up The Yangtze” is my film, and then asked if he’d be interested in seeing some of “China Heavyweight”. He okayed it and plunked himself down in the leather chair. I sat on the floor next to him like a child waiting to hear a story. We played the demo for him and immediately he started cussing at the first image, which showed Don King in China speaking in Mandarin and talking about boxing in China. Tyson was livid. Unbeknownst to many, Tyson is well read with Chinese history. He started comparing Don King to Chiang Kai-Shek, the KMT leader (Chinese Nationalist Party), who fled from Mao Zedong to Taiwan in 1949. Tyson pointed to his tattoo, told us that he was Mao and said that he’ll kick Don King out of China. He concluded by telling us that he will go to Huili to teach our kids to fight! It was all very exciting. Alas, he never made it to Huili but his heart was in the right place. I’d love to send him a dvd of the film. Moral of the story? Always have a cute puppy in your arsenal. Laji is still with me today in Canada.
Combing through more than 200 hours of footage, I’ve created “China Heavyweight” into a more a human drama than a “message” documentary. We use the genre of boxing to tell a bigger story. Embedded within the drama unfolding between the two students and the coach, is a commentary on modern China. In China, you fight for your country; but with boxing, the bottom line is that you’re fighting for yourself. This story becomes a metaphor for nationalism. vs. individualism. But at the heart of the film, it’s really about the relationship between Coach Qi and his students. It’s enough to walk-away with a greater sense of honor, about the role of mentors and teachers, and about perseverance. I do believe it’s a universal story.