Following the critical and commercial success of his 2007 documentary, Up the Yangtze, director Yung Chang once again turns his camera towards a rapidly-modernizing China in China Heavyweight.
The day before his film is set to have its Canadian premier at Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival, Chang and I meet in a park to talk about it. Having not yet seen the film, our conversation takes an immediate turn to one of common ground -- documentaries we'd seen at the festival so far. We joke about the after-effects of being inundated with documentaries, that suddenly anything and everything has revealed itself as potential fodder. He is warm yet animated, and listens with his chin resting on clasped hands whilst we compare notes, giving off the distinct impression that he is paying close attention.
Chang's own storytelling approach is subtle, perhaps categorically classic or traditional when contrasted to some of the films we find ourselves talking shop about -- especially those that incorporate dramatic recreation into their documentary narrative. Of one of the more buzzed-about films he says, "I didn't like the ending. I'm all about endings. Can it sustain me? I can hate a movie if the ending doesn't take me through."
I tell him about a conversation I overheard the night before at the Bloor Cinema that had me thinking about the medium and the ways in which documentaries can inform an audience. A young man (probably a Ryerson University film student) hated the film in question, preferring instead those films that are wholly objective in their approach, prattling on about something he kept referring to as the "pure documentary."
Chang grimaces as I explain this fellow's narrow theorizing. "Oh, gosh," he laughs. I am especially keen to know his opinion of the "pure documentary," certain that his own films are those that, according to the young man I overheard, fall into the sacred category.
Yung Chang: What is a "pure documentary"? Even when I was making China Heavyweight, it was a very collaborative process.
What I mean by that is, I wasn't writing a script. I did not do that. You rely on the availability of your subjects. Collaboration, when you have it, can allow you to make some beautiful things happen (when you're in sync with your subject). Most often, you're chasing after them and trying to find the story, but in the best of times you're in sync and things are happening and unfolding as you are there.
Sometimes, you can say, "Wait, wait - maybe we can find a better location. Let's let this [moment] unfold in another way, a natural way." I wouldn't say it's controlled, but it's some sort of eye towards the story.
ScreenAnarchy: I see the role of the documentarian as being some sort of conduit for story. There are stories everywhere. The question is, "How do you want to tell it?"
That's great. And you know, my motto is what the National Film Board [of Canada]'s used to be -
Now you'll get funding.
Yes, now I'll get funding. [Laughs]
That motto was, 'An interpretation of reality.' You're not making reality, you're interpreting reality. It's so important to understand that that's what the medium is. There's no such thing as "pure." Everything has a subjective point of view, even when you're shooting. Where you decide to point your camera is an editorial decision.
We all project and bring our own bias to everything. Documentary isn't the news.
And that is what makes us stand apart from the news. That's what makes our objectives more cinematic. I don't think the goal of a documentarian is necessarily to be informational; it's to question, more than to find answers.
It's a mirror. Anytime you can see yourself and relate to something -- even if it's a subject or topic that has nothing to do with you -- that's the connection. That's the mirror of reality. That's what I get excited about. I like being entranced by that which is beyond my scope, relating to other people and their experiences.
That's it exactly.
You make films on China and Chinese themes, which are becoming increasingly relevant and of interest to those of us in the West. 'Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry' profiles the highly controversial artist and opened the festival. I thought about titling a review 'Where There's a Will, There's Ai Wei Wei.'
That's funny, I like that. I've had conversations with Alison [Klayman, the director]. I like Ai Wei Wei a lot.
When you make a film in China about Chinese social and cultural issues, how much -- or do you -- have to censor yourself, so that you might go back at some point and make another one?
In my realm, that means perhaps I don't want to make a movie about Tibet quite yet.
For Up the Yangtze, I shot and filmed under the radar quite aggressively and didn't encounter any problems after I released the film. The government turns a blind eye to a lot of films. I think they realize that if they raise a ruckus over a movie -- even the Ai Wei Wei film -- that it may bring more attention to the issue. It's better for them to not do anything about it.
You just acknowledged that there might be certain topics that as a filmmaker you would avoid out of concern, perhaps.
I'm working on a film about Tiananmen Square.
They're probably not going to like that so much.
Not so much. [Laughs]
For me, it's something else: I think that in the West it's easy to hone an eye towards those "big topic" issues like freedom of speech, dissidence, the environment. They are serious problems in China.
There are a good billion people in China that have their own stories and connection to living in China day-to-day, and I think that is what interests me; that shadier area. I'm interested in finding out the experience of the everyday person and what that entails, to be living in China now. I think it's interesting for us to have insight into the lives of others that we don't necessarily get the chance to explore. People that don't really get movies made about them are interesting.
This particular film, China Heavyweight, follows this coach and these kids and in a way I like to think it's turning around the genre of boxing films, a little bit. What interests me about the subject matter, aside from it being kind of like a kung-fu movie in my opinion, is that boxing is a sport that is considered to be very Western and capitalist and violent. It was banned in 1959 and the ban was lifted in 1987 as China was opening up to reform.
They realized that they had an opportunity to garner a lot more medals at the Olympics -- 13 categories. So they opened it up. The way that the national sports system works involves a very rigorous recruitment process. You need divers to go out and look for divers. They do the same for boxers.
You have a big pool of people to choose from.
That's it. It's so arbitrary, you see, the recruitment process. It was decided that the best place to find boxers is in the rural countryside, in the tobacco farming fields. This town has trained over 200 champions in the past 20 years. There's something about their theory, about these tobacco farming kids in the high-altitude mountains who have big lungs and walk to school two hours every day, that help makes a boxer.
Also, it's so arbitrary when they test them; they ask them to throw punches. Based on that initial attempt they will decide whether or not you get a scholarship to learn to box and become champion for your country.
That's a lot of pressure.
You have this very Western sport, "too Western, too violent, too capitalist" -- for me it was very interesting to try and put that onto the story in a Chinese context. Here you have a country that believes in collectivism, Confucianism, and that is very group-oriented. Boxing is about fighting for yourself, being an individual. I found that that would be an interesting exploration and a new way to look at [a] modernizing China, through the eyes of these kids who are trying to define themselves at that moment of becoming adults.
In the film, the two boys go in different paths. I find it quite dramatic.
How did you find your subjects?
I had my producer in China who did a lot of research for me. We honed in on this school as a place because it has trained champions, it's in the mountains, it's quite rural, and we had a great experience meeting them for the first time.
Being that this town is so isolated we had carte blanche doing this film openly, above ground. That made it a whole different experience; there was no worry about shipping the footage out, or worrying about passing under the radar or whether we might get kicked out. We had the support of the school and the coaches until the end. In that way, I almost find this picture is like a fictional movie or drama. You don't find [that] often in documentary films.
Did you know the story as you were shooting it or did it come together in the editing room?
For me, I always have this "dream version" of the movie: I have the version that I wish it to be, it's the movie that I try to make. And often, it's heartbreaking, because it never turns out being that way. Often, it's serendipitous, because better things happen.
The initial idea was that I wanted to see one of the boys become professional and fight in a professional match and then win... a rewarding ending, a feel-good thing. "What a great metaphor for the young generation!" As I was filming, we realized that these kids have different notions of ambition and success. We're talking about poor, rural children who dress in brand new Nike, Adidas, and Converse attire. They have this fast-track ideal of becoming stars like Mike Tyson, these heroes that they adore. And little do they know -- maybe they do, I don't know -- that their real mentor is the coach [Qi Moxiang].
For me, he's a modern Chinese hero. China is going through so much right now; corruption, the value of that country is in making money. Everybody is out for that. It's a dog-eat-dog world. It doesn't matter who they trample over to get there. It's cheaper to make fake eggs, chemically-produced eggs, than it is to have chickens lay eggs and sell them in a market. They've been caught, and I've seen videos online that teach how to make fake eggs!
It's like the Wild West.
It's absolutely lawless in many ways, certainly with corruption on a governmental level and the disparity between rich and poor is pretty severe. To have this coach, a modern hero, teach these kids these virtues about how to be successful is inspiring. I found it missing from other experiences in China.
Certainly, when I was making Up the Yangtze, at that time the drive was to be successful by any means. You see that in that film. In some ways, Up the Yangtze was about perseverance, but China Heavyweight is about how to do it with a certain sense of moral character.
It's normal and easy for us, in the West, to point our lens upon distant places and see those different cultural experiences from our limited perspective and judge them.
Often, the headlines are how we learn about a country, a place, a culture. I've talked to everyday Chinese who wonder about Canada on a very superficial level. They say, "Your country is so spacious" or, "You make more money there." I tend to think it's all relative, but people come here for that opportunity and to fulfill a dream. In China the focus used to be on getting out, but now I think The China Dream has surpassed the American one.
What's The China Dream?
That peasants can become millionaires in China.
Does it happen?
It certainly does.
Can you give me an example without making a documentary about it?
[Laughs] I think I gotta make a documentary about it...
That needs to be a t-shirt. You have now made two very well-received films about China and the modern Chinese experience. Will you continue to do that?
I do, and I have. Though now I am working on something completely different. I'm in the editing room right now and working on a film about exotic fruit. It has very different subject matter.
Exotic Chinese fruit, perhaps? Are you doing a documentary on durian, the most foul-smelling fruit in the world?
Well, durian is part of it. [Laughs]
I just got back from Borneo where durian is banned from hotels. We were looking for the mythical, rare, Kura-kura durian, which is a durian that looks like a tortoise and grows at the base of the durian tree. It's very, very rare, very special. There's only three in existence and we found it!
I've been following fruit hunters -- the movie is called The Fruit Hunters and it's about people who are obsessed with exotic fruit to preserve. They travel the world, collect it and eat it. One of our subjects is the actor Bill Pullman, who happens to be obsessed. He's a total fruit-aholic. He's our everyman in the film, our journeyman, who goes on the exploration for exotic fruit.
Being Canadian and a product of our culture allows you to frame your stories and subjects with a level of objectivity that a Western viewer can easily digest; we see everything filtered through you. If the roles were reversed and your Chinese doppelgängar was making films about us, over here, what kinds of things what they might see?
That's an interesting question. [Pause]
When I go to China, I begin to see things with a critical eye towards the West as well. It inevitably happens when you're saturated with opinions. I find it really hard to answer. It's very interesting.
I like going to China to learn about myself, actually; going to a place that's familiar, but unfamiliar. I look inwardly, as well, when I make a film.
China Heavyweight is currently playing in limited release in Canada and will open in the U.S. on July 6.
Photo credit: Director Yung Chang at Hot Docs; copyright 2012 Rachel Fox.