Interview: Yung Chang

When interviewing China Heavyweight director Yung Chang outside on a gorgeous spring day during the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival, it was oddly appropriate and symbolically cheesy that we talked beneath a cherry blossom tree. It adds an odd air of comfort to the interview that I doubt I’ve ever had before while talking to someone.

The Canadian, multiple award winning Up the Yangtze filmmaker returned to China with a lot less difficulty this time around to document the building of the Chinese national boxing squad. After a decades long ban of the sport due to its perceived brutal nature, Chang followed master coach Qi Moxiang and a group of impoverished pugilist hopefuls from largely rural areas as they train and fight for their dreams.

In addition to our chance to talk with Chang about his first foray into making a movie about sports, you can also have a chance to talk to Chang and coach Moxiang as they will be attending almost the entire opening weekend of the film at the Varsity in Toronto, for the evening shows on Friday, May 11th, all day on Saturday, May 12th, and the matinees on Sunday, May 13th.

Dork Shelf: Your last film really gives no indication that your next one would be a sports movie, what made you want to do this story?

Yung Chang: Well, it was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to make a martial arts film, and I also loved boxing movies. That was my upbringing. I watched lots of kung-fu movies growing up, and Shaw Brothers movies, and those kind of kung-fu soap operas and things like that. I loved that stuff, but they would always have kind of a minimal amount of action, and there would always be so much backstory and so much development of these themes of loyalty and respect, and all sorts of these very Confucian elements that at some point became embedded in the culture of the kung-fu film.

Similarly, boxing movies are the Western kung-fu epics. You can reflect and impose so much more within that genre. It’s fun to play with the tropes, and fun to turn them around a little bit. I felt that in this boxing movie that the notion of boxing being this totally Western, totally American, capitalist and violent sport – all reasons why it was banned in China – to take that and put that in the context of a Chinese story would be an interesting investigation into China and also hopefully it’s history.

DS: We’re you surprised that this sport despite being a martial art had been suppressed for so long?

YC: It’s interesting how the coaches are training the students by using traditional martial arts techniques. It’s this selective training mentality to train people to fight in a sport that’s very much about the individual. It’s at that point where it becomes interesting how boxing clashes with actual Chinese culture.

I was reminded of a movie made recently called Ip Man, and it all revolves around a character who’s the quintessential Chinese hero. He’s reserved, patient, contained, very calm, and then you have his enemy who’s this brash and crazed Western boxing guy, and that to me was just exemplary of how many Chinese view the sport of boxing.

It’s different in China Heavyweight because you have a character like Coach Qi who for me epitomizes the modern Chinese hero. He’s so similar to many coaches in so many gyms around the world who don’t want to be paid a dime, but do it for the passion because they believe in the dream and the value of teaching these skills and these virtues to their students. In contemporary China now, I think they’re faced with so many sort of moral confusions where people are driven by greed and corruption that Qi is almost one of the last heroes that’s somehow able to instil some sort of moral character to the younger generation. To me that’s what struck me.

In many ways this film is about mentors and masters. We all have people like that, I think, who have marked us in our lives outside of our families and that was really influential when I was making this film. This coach was way more important than I originally thought he would be in the beginning.

DS: Was it interesting to see just how much a lot of these fighters training in China now are looking up to the greats of this Westernized sport without really having had a chance to see them in their prime?

YC: Exactly! It was shocking to me the identification they had with this culture. First, the material identification with things like Nike and Converse and Adidas across the board coming from very poor families with children who are wearing very fancy equipment or at the very least nice T-shirts and shoes. To me it was kind of odd, but then upon interpretation it seemed to represent this ideal and dream of success that was defined by materialism, but also glory and a certain individualism that they identified with in each of these boxers. These are athletes that beyond the merchandise are defined by their personalities, and by their brashness like the enemy in Ip Man.

You know, my co-editor on the film, Xi Feng, a Chinese editor, commented on how the younger generation today only sees a fast path to success, and while that’s quite universal, the stakes are a lot higher in China to some degree where with the backstory of these kids we get the sense that they don’t really want to be harvesting tobacco leaves, but that they might have this other path that this new generation of the Chinese middle class might reach by way of the long path.

DS: It’s also hard to develop that kind of brashness and bravado in a small town in a culture where such emotion has always been looked down upon, and that’s something that a boxer has to thrive on to succeed.

YC: It’s SO huge. In martial arts, you’re not even supposed to fight. It’s an art. Boxing is an art, as well, but it’s also based around personality and persona. That is VERY different than the Chinese mentality, and that’s where the metaphor gets a little more juicy. There’s something definitely to be looked at there in the film.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote a great book called On Boxing, and there’s this great passage about how the flair of the boxer and his mentality are the biggest part of the sport. Fighters don’t go into a bout thinking they’re going to lose, they have to think that they have to win and they’re the best in the world. They can’t know anything else, and they train that way, too. That’s how you build up the stamina needed to stand in a ring naked with an audience surrounding you and you become this almost mythical figure.

DS: It’s also funny in a way to see this country slowly embracing a sport that seems to be declining somewhat in popularity now thanks to the rise of MMA. Do you think that it’s because it’s something still seen as being somewhat exotic to these young fighters?

YC: I think there is a certain exotic element to it. It’s a tough sport to sell in China now, and it’s hard going for a lot of reasons. But here with boxing even with the rise of other fighting styles, there’s this certain element of mythmaking that you can’t have with a fight in an octagon or a cage. It’s so different the level of glory and the stage acting almost like this gladiatorial setting. It’s embedded in our brains as Western kids growing up and watching these movies. I think that still holds and there’s really nothing in comparison to that.

In China, it is this kind of clash of ideals that’s being explored across the board from the fights to the training process. In China you’re educated by rote, by memorization, and by following the rules, and in the West you’re told to be creative and thing outside the box and to be improvisational, and that’s something altogether new for these students of boxing. It’s almost hand in hand where boxing and education in China sort of fall, and they’re going to break at some point where people are going to realize that they don’t need to memorize all this shit and that they can be creative and think outside the box. That’s potentially where we’re going in China. That’s what the country is waiting for; people they can see as these kind of flamboyant characters. I think as China figures out where they fit into the world and as they feel more aggressive and more confident, you’ll start seeing this kind of boxing mentality coming out.

DS: Now on your last film set in China you had a hard time gaining access to what you needed. This time around when you were dealing directly with a national program was it easier or harder?

YC: I gotta tell you, we had a great time getting to know these guys, and it happened so quickly. It was in December of 2009 that we went on a research and fact finding trip and Han Yi, my Chinese producer because this is a co-production with a Chinese company – which immediately allowed us the kind of access that we needed to film without fear of being run out of the country like what happened with Yangtze – he and I walked around this small town accessible only by one really bumpy road. That place has got to be milked for more film shoots because it was just amazing. The food was awesome, the people were so supportive. And the coaches are such important people in that town, that once people got wind of what we were making a film about, the doors just started to open. There was some drinking required, though. (laughs) You know, the Chinese method is to have dinners and drink a lot of baijiu and then things are happy and you’re friends.

That helps, but to gain such intimacy with the subjects always takes time. That’s not immediate. You have to work with it and play with the ideas of having cameras around these people at all times who have never had that experience before in their lives. You actually have to film a lot of bad stuff that really isn’t useful, but it helps get them used to the idea of having a camera around at all times. The joy of this film was that it was so collaborative that if something was changing in someone’s life, they would let us know what was happening and we would be able to catch up with them and be there for that moment. We were lucky for those moments, and when shaping the story I tried to make it as iconic and almost fictional as possible to achieve the level of intimacy that you sometimes sit there and question.

For having been bred on kung-fu movies and boxing movies, but never really being cognizant of the actual sport that much, this was a great training ground for me as a filmmaker.. We didn’t want to get so many of the mundane details. I didn’t want to make (Frederick) Weisman’s Boxing Gym. I wanted to try to make something that was sort of a hybrid, but not in a fictional way, but to make one of those movies that I loved so much.