“Iron Hands”: A Short Film By Johnson Cheng
In 2017, Johnson Cheng released a short film shot in Beijing called “Iron Hands.” On Johnson Cheng’s website, the short film is described as follows: “As a 12-year-old girl prepares for her final test trying out for the traditionally all-boys Chinese youth Olympic weightlifting team, she makes an unlikely connection with the gym’s reclusive groundskeeper.” The groundskeeper may look like a simple worker, but as the story unfolds, we learn his importance in the short film. We will analyze most scenes in the short film on how history cannot repeat itself but can rhyme.
The first few seconds of the short film start with a black screen as someone yells. The screen then changes to some running tracks with several adolescents running. Compared by size, the petite runner is the slowest and gets shouted at to run faster. The camera follows their movements until it reaches the groundskeeper sweeping the sand. He is silently observing the adolescents while he is working. The following scene changes to show several weights marked with the 2008 Beijing Olympics logo while someone is knocking off the screen. The girl yelled at to run faster in the first scene is the one doing the off-screen knocking. She wants the groundskeeper to open the gate for the weightlifting gym at six in the morning. She is ambitious to keep practicing her weightlifting strategies.
A few scenes later, all the adolescents practice their weightlifting strategies while the groundskeeper cleans some weights in the corner of the room. Although the groundskeeper wants to ensure that all the weights are clean, the team’s coach tells him, “How many times do I have to tell you… these old weights are useless now. And these. Get them out of my sight.” The groundskeeper hesitates but obliges and takes the weights to another room where other old weights are already there.
The groundskeeper returns to the gym and notices that the girl is still practicing her weightlifting technique. She can lift the weight in a squatting position but cannot get herself to stand up. He flips the light switch several times, signaling the girl that he is closing up, but she does not pay attention. He goes up to her and tells her he is closing the building for the day, but she tells him to give her a few more minutes. He tells her to practice tomorrow, but she informs him that tomorrow is her last chance to prove that she can be part of the weightlifting team.
This next scene starts to change the trajectory of the groundskeeper’s character. The groundskeeper tells the girl to straighten her back when she lifts. She looks back at him, confused, but follows his instructions. This time, she can lift the weight and stand up simultaneously but fails to lift the weight past her head. The groundskeeper tells her to try again and keep her back straight, not arch. Once she can stand, he tells her to flex her core and push. This time, she can do the complete form without failure. From how the groundskeeper guided the girl through her weightlifting, he gave the impression that he knew what he was talking about by observing other weightlifters or having experience.
Once the girl puts the weight down and the groundskeeper walks away, she goes after him and asks, “I saw you cleaning the weights earlier… Do you like weightlifting?” The groundskeeper stops walking and hesitates to answer. At this moment, we can tell that there was more than him enjoying weightlifting. Instead, he answers her, “If no one takes care of the weights… they’ll get thrown away.” She brings him one that had been in the pile he was cleaning a few scenes before and asks, “How about this one?” She tries to figure him out, but instead, he answers that it is getting late. He avoids answering her questions, confirming that he hides the truth from the girl.
This following scene proves that it can be hard to let go of the past. At the 6:15 minute mark, we can see that the groundskeeper is holding another old weight that the girl had handed him a few scenes before in his vicinity. He does a double-take to his right on something that is off the screen. When the camera pans to what he is looking at, we can see a red tank top marked with the word “China.” Since the girl is trying out for the youth Olympic weightlifting team, is it that the tank top the groundskeeper has is from the Olympics? After looking at some reference pictures from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there was enough evidence to conclude that that was the same tank top used by the weightlifting team. He may be part of the weightlifting team if he has the same tank top. However, something must have happened that prevented him from participating in the Olympics. In the following scene, he removes the tank top from the hanger and places it in front of himself while looking in the mirror. He looks discontent with his reflection before placing the tank top back on the hanger.
In the scene, we see that the day has come for the girl’s last opportunity. The girl must prove that she can keep her spot on the weightlifting team. The coach is starting with the heaviest weightlifter and going down the list. Waiting for her turn, someone from out of the screen whispers to her and catches her attention. She turns her attention to the direction she is being called and is tossed a hand wrap for use. She smiles, and the groundskeeper enters the screen. As he starts sweeping, he tells her, “Back straight. Don’t arch.” The girl then goes for her turn and lifts the 35 kg weight successfully. Everyone claps for her, including the groundskeeper. The girl takes off the hand wrap and leaves it on the bench. She walks away with the coach but briefly turns around to bow to the groundskeeper. The groundskeeper nods back and watches her go. He made sure to be there as support and encouragement. These actions could be part of why the groundskeeper could not participate in the Olympics. Maybe he had no one who supported or encouraged him.
The last few scenes are like the groundskeeper reliving his past. After everyone leaves, the groundskeeper notices the hand wrap on the bench. He picks it up and starts wrapping it around his hand. He takes a deep breath and picks up the weight that the girl lifted. He can still lift the weight, although he struggles and grunts a bit. He smiles to himself while still holding the weight in the air. He is most likely reminiscing about when he would compete at the Olympics. After a few moments, he gently puts the weight down on the ground and pats the weight from both ends. He steps back and walks away towards the front left side of the screen. After the groundskeeper leaves the screen, there is a sound like a light switch, and the screen goes black. It is almost like he is saying goodbye to a chapter of his life that he could not finish. That may be why he worked in the facility in the first place, so he could relive his moment of what could have been.
Cheng, Johnson. Iron Hands. Vimeo, 20 Apr. 2020, https://vimeo.com/409685781.
Ifitshipitshere.com, https://www.ifitshipitshere.com/sneak-peek-nike-shoes-uniforms-for-the-chinese-athletes-in-beijing/. Accessed 7 Dec. 2022.
“Iron Hands —.” JOHNSON CHENG, http://johnsoncheng.com/ironhands. Accessed 6 Dec. 2022.