the spirit of the times
Director Yung Chang is no stranger to Zeitgeist’s offices – the Chinese Canadian filmmaker has been a familiar face here at Z since he won multiple awards for his 2007 documentary Up the Yangtze. Back now for the release of his latest, China Heavyweight (also a documentary), Chang and I sat down for a chat about boxing, filmmaking, and a famous feud involving a certain mopey Canadian.
I read in a few interviews that you were excited about making China Heavyweight because it was an opportunity to explore how the end of Mao’s boxing ban has changed life in China… but how did you initially come upon that as a topic?
Our producer, Peter Wintonick [who also produced Manufacturing Consent] found a story about boxing in China and presented it to me and was just sort of offering it to me as an idea. I kind of thought about it, and the first thing I started to do was dream about the films that I love about boxing. When I thought about On the Waterfront, and I thought about these sort of movies – western films about hard-up stories – it led me to think about putting, you know, that idea of a western boxing movie in China, what would that be? It wouldn’t be like, a kung-fu movie – I love kung-fu movies too, but what is a kung-fu movie? They often deal with themes like honor, loyalty, redemption – those kind of things. It’s sort of the boxing genre of Asia. Here you would look at boxing movies like the kung-fu movies of the West. So I was playing with that, I was thinking about that a lot. It really made me dream about what the story would be about. So I think the idea started with the daydreaming. Even with Up the Yangtze for example, I think it always starts with what do you imagine the film to be like, and what will it feel like? I felt like it would be that kind of story where you follow the evolution of someone trying to become something. And that was exctiing to me. The tropes of a boxing film were really exciting to me. And I wanted to try to make that happen.
Was it easy to get Coach Qi and the school to agree to let you in?
That wasn’t a problem! I think there was a mutual collaboration. Everytime you embark on a project, you always hope that there’s a give and take between that relationship, right? I think the Master and the Coach both saw the benefits of collaborating with us. But they didn’t think – a lot of people don’t really know what a documentary is in China. They think it’s like an interview, and then you go. You spend, you know, an hour and then you leave. We kept going back and back, like, two years later we were still shooting, you know –
Were they surprised?
They were. They got it after about the first month, they were like, “Okay these guys are here to stay.” We just hung out with them. And that’s what you do. You don’t shoot all the time, you spend a lot of time with them and you get to know everybody. And it was so fun! We had a great time making the film, and I got so close to everybody, and it was emotional. You really get wrapped up in their lives.
Do you stay in touch with Coach Qi?
I’m in touch with him constantly. Right now he’s training the girls for their first provincial match, competition – ever. It’s gonna be at the end of July, so he’s busy working on that. He came with us to Sundance and Toronto, he likes the movie. He says that the movie kind of is a true experience of a boxer in China.
Did he like the whole press experience of going to the festivals?
Well… the first time to America for him was Sundance, and that was maybe not the best thing for him because it was so jarring to be in the middle of nowhere with people just getting on buses everywhere going to see movies. It’s weird. I don’t think it was a good impression. But it was good that people loved him and were supportive and cried and gave him standing ovations, and they were just so – I think he needed that to be able to watch the film and just be able to get the scope of his character. To get an outside perspective of that. I think he likes that now. In Toronto he was a huge hit – we had a twitter thing where we arranged fans of the film to go train with him in the park. It was amazing – he had a great time.
I was just gonna ask if he trained you at all…
He likes to tease me a little bit, so – he beats me up. It’s hard to box. I can’t do it.
What are some of your favorite films, boxing or non-boxing?
You sort of have your flavor of the month. I can think of so many movies that are so different, and they have all been influential, and I love them. Like, Bicycle Thieves is a film that I love. If I wanna get artsy like that, I think Fanny and Alexander, Wild Strawberries, those kind of movies are awesome. Anything by Kurosawa is amazing. Ozu. I like David Lynch. Love documentaries, like good old verité documentaries. Grey Gardens, Hoop Dreams.
I think I saw on your blog a screenshot of Videodrome.
Oh my god, I love Cronenberg. Lately I’ve also loved Uncle Boonmee [Who Can Recall His Past Lives]. And then a movie that I constantly think about, that inspired the title sequence to The Fruit Hunters [Chang’s next documentary] is Enter the Void by Gaspar Noé. You can’t get it out of your head. Have you seen it?
I haven’t. It’s in my queue.
It’s crazy. And I think being in a movie theater is so important to watching a movie and having it affect you. Like when I think about – I remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia when I was high school at a rep house and it was CinemaScope; it was amazing. Those kind of things.
How long do you give yourself between projects? Or is it something you don’t really have control over?
I wish I could have more control – I wish I had the foresight to know that I should have control over it. But I’m a filmmaker that is sort of like that kind of actor who’s worried about where the next job is gonna be. I’m always gonna take everything I can take. I have the fear that people just lose interest and I’ll just – who knows what will happen in this fickle, fickle world of film. You wanna just keep working I think. It’s a practical, pragmatic kind of Chinese thing, I think, that makes me wanna do that. In an ideal world I would do one film and then get it out there and wait, go on holiday, go to the beach or go fishing, and then have the other film come out. Nope. For this one I had two movies shooting simultaneously – China Heavyweight and The Fruit Hunters – which is insane and I would not recommend again to anybody.
I have one final, very goofy question in relation to boxing. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this ongoing Chris Brown/Drake feud.
Oh yeah, they had a fight!
Well they’ve been offered a million dollars each to do a boxing match, and i don’t know if you had a theory as to who would win.
Do you know that Drake is Canadian?
He grew up near the high school I went to in Toronto. I don’t know what Chris Brown’s background is; what’s he like?
I think he had kind of a rough upbringing.
Who won the fight in the club?
Well Chris Brown had the cut on his face, which he claims is from a bottle that Drake threw, but Drake, as far as we know… well, Drake claims not to have done any such thing, but also didn’t have a scratch on him. So was there a winner? I don’t know.
Were they feuding over Rihanna?
That’s what the rumor is.
She is amazing that way. Okay, see, Chris Brown is not good for what he did to Rihanna. Drake though… whose music is better? There’s so many different categories you can measure in terms of gauging who would you want to win. God. I have to answer this.
But see, if I say –
You can say if it would be by points or by knock-out or by whatever. You can determine a lot of things about how you think it would go down. But ultimately I wanna know who you think would win.
Who’s at their fittest right now?
Probably Chris Brown.
He’s taller, he’s –
He’s definitely taller. And he’s a dancer. And Drake’s kind of like –
Drake’s not. He’s a crooner. Huh. Well, just knocking aside all their backstory – I think that Chris Brown would probably win. But it would be maybe by decision, it would be maybe like a ten-rounder thing and it wouldn’t be a knock-out. We’re talking about a judge deciding. Close.
I think I agree with you. I’ve thought about it a little bit.
Best question of the whole interview.
(This interview has been condensed and edited.)
China Heavyweight is now playing at IFC Center in NYC!