CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT (Yung Chang). 89 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (May 11). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNN
Following the success of his 2007 documentary, Up The Yangtze, Yung Chang returns with another look at the changing culture of modern China. This one follows a few young men in central China who've been recruited by a boxing trainer in hopes of becoming champions.
Success would mean escaping their tiny villages and entering the larger world - though the odds are slim at best. But that possibility is enough to keep the recruits committed to their punishing training regimen. It's like military boot camp, except that boxing rewards individuality rather than punishing it - which is why the sport was banned under Mao.
The training sequences are appropriately gritty and gruelling. But the basic underdog structure and material aren't well suited to Chang's moody, sensual aesthetic, which uses long takes and atmospheric music to build a contemplative space around everything he shoots. When China Heavyweight goes all Rocky in a climactic bout, it feels like it's lurching to life for the first time.