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Originally published Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 3:02 PM

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'China Heavyweight': Documentary hits on boxers' hopes for glory

A movie review of "China Heavyweight," Yung Chang's insightful, sharp documentary that follows the paths of several Chinese boxers whose dreams of athletic glory seem out of step with their surrounding culture.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'China Heavyweight,' a documentary written and directed by Yung Chang. 90 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Mandarin and Sichuanese, with English subtitles. SIFF Cinema at the Film Center.

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Late in "China Heavyweight," a documentary largely shot over a couple of years in rural Sichuan province, a big crowd gathers in a town square to hear ceremonial talk about the 90th anniversary of Chinese Communism.

One of the speakers says socialism remains the best hope for the future of the country. But that's certainly not what's on the minds of the young Chinese boxers followed by Sino-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang ("Up the Yangtze").

Pursuing a self-determined path toward dreams of athletic glory, the late-teen pugilists whom Yung profiles — in remarkably revealing and touching ways — literally walk away from traditional, hardscrabble family obligations to pursue their own goals.

More tellingly, they even eschew an official route to success, which basically amounts to government-led pressure to bring honor to their hometowns first, Sichuan province after that, and ultimately China itself. That doesn't sit well with the restless Miao Yunfei, a 19-year-old who idolizes Mike Tyson and has clearly absorbed the individualistic spirit of a brutal, Western sport.

Nor does it ultimately suit the film's most compelling figure, a late-30s boxing coach named Qi Moxiang. A one-time contender whose speed and strength in the ring (seen in archival footage) are as impressive as his commitment now to train Miao and others to box, Qi looks like a haunted man when he dares ponder a comeback. The tension in his eyes seems largely about the wisdom of doing something for himself.

Yung has a remarkably fluid style, certainly for a documentary, of shooting and cutting scenes together that oddly recalls the Golden Age days of Hollywood's so-called "invisible editing" (meaning a type of editing you don't really notice).

Yung seems to anticipate real-life emotional beats and positions his camera at exactly the right moments, yet nothing seems artificial or scripted. The result is an unexpectedly tender film about the price of coming into one's own.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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