Sometimes, the heart of a culture is not reached by apparent entrances (culinary habits, religious beliefs, language) but by doors that are in the back or completely unknown. With the documentary China Heavyweight, the unexpected entrance into newly industrialized China happens to be boxing, a once banned but now emerging sport. Directed by Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze), the film is about young and rural students who are selected by a former boxing champ, Qi Moxiang, to train for a chance at Olympic glory. There's a lot of Hoop Dreams in this picture—a lot of heart, hope, and sobering doses of reality. Boxing is highly competitive and demanding; you can be talented and give it everything you've got, spend all of the mental and physical resources you have, and still end up with a future filled with nothing but broken dreams. However, rural life (and also urban poverty) is so miserable, so dull, so idiotic that young men are willing to take the risk and put almost every egg they've got into one basket.
These boxing dreams turn out to be the door through which we enter the soul, rhythms, sounds, and intimate moments of China today. We enter dining rooms where men have gathered to eat, drink, and smoke (one man puts out his cigarette on the floor under a table loaded with steaming dishes). We enter the home of a family that's sustained by backbreaking tobacco farming. In one scene, the country boys/dreamers enter a city and visit a street that's been transformed into a paradise of global consumption. In another, the country boys watch two cooks dancing to house music as they skewer meat. This is China. The peasants are very poor: They wear Manchester United shirts, Sacramento Kings shorts, and Adidas trainers; they have personal computers and are connected by cell phones. I read somewhere that, statistically, the average human in the world is more likely to own a cell phone than a bank account. If you doubt this fact, then watch China Heavyweight, a beautifully shot and richly detailed documentary.