While superficially tackling the nationally sponsored youth boxing programs that have sprung up in China since the ban was lifted on the sport in the mid-'80s, China Heavyweight is far more than a mere look at the trials and tribulations of mastering a sport, rather it's the metaphor of fighting that represents the struggle between tradition and modernity, a theme omnipresent in Chinese cinema.
Director Yung Chang (being of Canadian Chinese descent) is able to immerse himself into the experiences of young Olympic hopefuls in Huili County within the southwest Sichuan province of China. His footage of the boys and their similarly conflicted coach, Qi Moxiang, an ex-professional boxer, is non-invasive and frequently cinematic, giving this culturally conscious documentary of ideology a cinematic vibe that makes a narrative out of the art of observation.
As Moxiang struggles with his identity as a teacher, considering jumping back into the ring despite being out of the limelight for several years, the boys vacillate between the expectations of their traditional parents, who either question the consequences of failure or push their children ahead in the hopes of escaping rural life. Moreover, the thrill of celebrity tantalizes the boys, who debate the pros and cons of Olympic aspirations versus professional boxing fame.
Since the voice is distinctly male, concerned primarily with the notion of identity as externally defined and labelled, the actual heart of the story has a limited audience. There is a keen eye for the sport of boxing — something that is neither condemned nor condoned — as an allegory for the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against the young hopefuls. And the idea of modern China confronting the ideology of Western culture is similarly present as defining artistic center. It's just that investing in the outcome of subjects with such a limited concept of self is a bit of a stretch.
For all of the sharply constructed sequences of rigorous training juxtaposed with quietly demonstrated emotional strife, the perspective is too narrow and specific to capture the intended universal truths. Instead, this is a smart but distancing look at male identity as balanced between safe expectations and risky external praise. (Kinosmith)