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From the ring to the screen

By GUI QIAN and LI YINGQING in Kunming | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-03-13 08:17
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Zhang Guiling, a retired member of China's national boxing team, stars as a boxer in the movie YOLO, which was released on Feb 10. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Zhang Guiling, the retired boxer starring in the film YOLO shares her journey from athlete to actress, reflecting her dedication and passion for boxing.

Director and actress Jia Ling's film, YOLO (You Only Live Once), captivated audiences across China during this year's Spring Festival. The movie reaches its pinnacle during the final boxing match, where a professional female boxer faces off against Jia, leaving a lasting impression on the viewers.

For the boxer herself, the journey from practicing the sport to starring in a movie has been nothing short of remarkable.

The boxer is Zhang Guiling, a 26-year-old from Longling county in Baoshan, Southwest China's Yunnan province.

As a retired member of China's national boxing team, she was recommended by a boxing coach to take on the role in YOLO in October last year.

"When I went to Foshan, Guangdong province, for filming, Jia had slimmed down and had been learning boxing for some time, mastering basic moves," Zhang said, recalling her first encounter with Jia. "I felt nervous playing against her. In the first month, I sparred with her daily, but I couldn't treat her as a real opponent."

During the filming, Jia insisted that Zhang fight for real, emphasizing the need for authenticity.

"Jia is a dedicated person, and I admire her for this. She personally helped me with my mental preparation and relieved my pressure. She told me, 'You're being too gentle with me. Just let go,'" Zhang recalled.

Zhang adhered to this advice and threw punches fiercely, but the filming process was not as smooth as she had anticipated. Despite her experience in boxing, she was a novice in the realm of acting. In addition, challenges such as positioning and lighting led to multiple retakes. As a result, it took the crew over half a month to complete the scenes where she confronts Jia.

The most memorable moment for Zhang during filming was the second round of the boxing match. "I could hear my punches, one after another. 'Bang, bang,' I can't forget it to this day," she said.

"It was so clear to see Jia's pained facial expression from a first-person perspective. When the filming was called to a stop, I rushed over to hug her, and I cried. The doctor said that I had given Jia a mild concussion. 'How could I hit her so hard?' I thought to myself. 'Many people must hate me for that.'"

Zhang was amazed and proud that Jia managed to take the full force of her hits, knowing the strength behind her punches as a professional boxer. At 170 cm tall and boasting an arm span of the same length, Zhang is known for her aggressive boxing style.

In 2011, Zhang stood out in an athletics competition in Longling and was enrolled in the youth amateur sports school of Baoshan at the age of 13. Having no concept of what boxing was at that time, she began formal practice in 2012 under her teacher's guidance.

Just one year later, Zhang was selected for the Yunnan provincial boxing team. Her first career highlight came in 2015 when she won the National Youth Boxing Championship. After that, she continued to earn more honors at the Yunnan Provincial Games and the National Boxing Championship, which helped her join China's national boxing team in 2017. Then for two consecutive years, she secured gold medals in the women's 60 kg category at the National Boxing Championship.

Recalling her days of training, Zhang said there were many doubtful and critical voices at the beginning, such as "why should a girl learn boxing" and "you don't look like a girl". But one unique characteristic about her is that once she steps into the ring, she becomes completely focused and devoted.

Regarding the confrontational nature of boxing, injuries were common, and getting bruised and swollen were only two of the lightest injuries.

Now, Zhang still suffers from the damage inflicted when she faced off against a male boxer at the age of 16. "He threw a punch, and my ears kept ringing, but I didn't realize I was injured. It was only after the doctor examined me that I found out my eardrum had been punctured. My nasal bridge is now flat because it was broken and never properly healed," she said.

Zhang's parents are both ordinary farmers, but they have always respected her choice and supported her quietly. "However, after attending one of my matches in person in 2014, they dare not watch my matches again," she said.

After five years of training and competing with the national team, Zhang retired in November 2022 and chose to embark on a new "track". She returned to Yunnan and opened a boxing club in Yiliang county, Kunming, the capital of Yunnan.

Now that the movie is bringing more attention to both boxing and herself, she plans to open a branch in downtown Kunming.

"Boxing is a very stress-relieving sport. I hope that more people can understand and fall in love with it and improve their physical fitness through it," she said.

Besides teaching boxing, Zhang still trains for about one hour every day to maintain her competitive level. She also goes for a run with club members at 6:30 every morning.

"For me, boxing is not just a sport. It is a way of life," Zhang said.

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