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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Director of Film Screened at UMB Film Series on China Moral Degradation and Boxing

Yung Chang is an internationally award winning filmmaker

Yung Chang is an internationally award winning filmmaker

 

 

 

 

On Tuesday, April 4, the UMB Film Series screened Yung Chang’s documentary “China Heavyweight,” a film which focuses on teenagers in China who are recruited from the countryside and trained in boxing with hopes that they will someday compete in the Olympics. The Mass Media sat down with Director Yung Chang for a Q&A session before the film was screened. 

 

 

Mao actually banned boxing?

Yeah, he banned a lot of things, but boxing in particular. I think it was because there was a bout, and one of the fighters died. I think it just kind of jibed with his mandate, and he banned it.

Boxing is identified as an American sport. He called it too capitalist, too violent, too American. He just did not like the Americans. I think it was partially a political message.

I know you made a documentary about boxers, but are you personally a fan of boxing?

I grew up at the time when Mike Tyson was in the ring. It seemed to be bigger than it is now, but I’m not sure if that just shows that I’m a little more detached from the sport. I never studied it, or learned it myself.

I’m a fan as much as it is in the film. I’m a big fan of the “boxing genre” of movie-making. There’s a handful of American films that used boxing as a way to explore the human condition. I think that’s what really drove me to use that genre in this particular film as a backdrop, as a microcosm of China.

I also love kung fu movies because I’m Chinese; I grew up with films like that. The idea of the two of these combined, where you get the West thing and the East thing going, and the idea of trying to pursue that in a film… It became kind of this idea in my head, a kung fu/boxing movie set in China, a documentary film exploring the idea of generational conflict and modernization in China through the guise of this sport.

How fast does that turn around, that you go from boxing being banned to kids competing for these titles?

China’s interesting. If they set something forth, they can make things happen very quickly. The ban was lifted in I think 1987, because the notion was that they could win a lot of Olympic medals, probably the most in any category. Over the past twenty-some odd years since the ban has been lifted, China has had a handful of Olympic champions.

That aside, I think my movie isn’t really about boxing in the end. It’s about the struggle to survive. It’s about defeat. It’s about what it means to be successful. I think those are things that in China, right now in particular, have quite sharp resonance for people.

I found that it’s really competitive in China. People are really fighting to be successful and losing a sense of their moral acumen. I find that people are perhaps being exploited and exploiting a little bit. I found that when I was making this film, that was circulating a little bit, this idea that there was so much corruption going on left and right.

I was thinking that there was this moral degradation of society. At the time, I was overwhelmed by that idea. Then I found this coach, the boxing coach in the film, Coach Qi. He seemed to be taking this very Western sport and using it to shape a moral grounding for these kids. These hard-up kids from the countryside that are mostly peasants from these peasant farming families don’t have much going for them unless they find a way out, and the way out is using a sport as an avenue to better opportunity.

This character of Coach Qi, he seemed to take this Eastern/Western hybrid of teaching. The philosophy behind it was quite Chinese, sacrificing for the school and for your family to be able to help them out. Meanwhile, that clashes with what boxing is really about. In my mind, it’s a sport about the individual. It’s a sport about surviving on your own terms and making your own way. It’s the idea of two people in a ring together, duking it out, and only one person is going to be the winner.

It was very interesting for me to see it through the eyes of the coach and these kids, who are clearly Chinese, and from Chinese traditional families, but dealing with the sport of boxing.

You talk about moral degradation. Where is the degradation coming from? What is it about?

I don’t have a specific equation for that degradation, but I think some of it can be rooted to the post-89, Tiananmen Square Massacre condition. A good friend of mine, a filmmaker who left China because he was involved in the protests, expressed to me what he calls the “death of idealism” post-89.

His generation initially were so moved by the opportunities that were opening up at the time in the ’80s, when social and political reform was happening. They felt like anything could be achievable.

I think after the massacre, the government was driven to find a new way to convince the public and the people to exercise that sense of idealism. Now it was no longer driven by that idea of freedom, but it was much more driven by business.

You had all these Special Economic Zones open up throughout China. One of them was Shenzhen, for example. That became the beacon of success. My friend told me that at that point, many people, even those involved in Tiananmen Square, refocused their energy and their passions into making cash. That became the new idealism.

It’s only a theory, but I wonder if that is what happened, that there was an overall government drive to condition people into that idea, that no longer do you need to be thinking about anything else. Just think about making money.

In the preview, there’s this striking image of a delicate young girl in a pink dress learning how to box.

They just, as of the 2012 London Olympics, opened up female boxing. In China, when they got wind of this, they also opened up the recruitment process to look for female fighters, to groom them.

They did the same thing that they did for the boys; they scoured the countryside. We managed to film the first recruitment with female fighters.

The sacrifice is much different for a girl in China because the expectations are usually different. It was interesting to follow the recruitment process.

It’s shocking, and I think especially because it’s in the Chinese context. These girls from farming backgrounds, the expectation is that they’re going to be married at 20. They’re going to be working at the farm. The idea of them punching people and sustaining injuries, bloody noses and the like, is painful for a lot of parents, even in the West.