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Big Brother
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by Jay Seaver

"Silly but sincere heroic-teacher flick."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Big Brother" is corn of the highest order, and it probably won't be long before Hong Kong film fans watch it with more than a bit of irony, laughing at just how unrefined it can be at times. And that's fine, if not necessarily what the filmmakers were going for, because while the script is heavy-handed, the cast plays it with a relatively light touch, so it's an entertainingly cliched uplifting teacher movie rather than a sneer-worthy one.

The new teacher is Henry Chen Xia (Donnie Yen Ji-dan), who has never held the job before, but what is apparently an exceptional reference letter convinces principal Patrick Lin (Dominic Lam Ka-wah) to hire him as Liberal Studies teacher and assign him as homeroom teacher to Class F-6B, where all of the kids that the system has more or less given up on are. Five stand out - Jack Li (Jack Lok Ming-kit), who is always checked out because he's supporting his grandmother with his part-time job; Gladys Wang (Gladys Li), who wants to be a Formula One driver but whose father ignores her in favor of her younger brother; Faiyaz "Gordon" Ahnan (Gordon Lau Chiu-kin), a third-generation Pakistani immigrant with a talent for music; and twins Chris Guan (Chris Tong Kwan-yiu), a passionate gamer, and Bruce Guan (Bruce Tong Kwan-chi), who keeps their alcoholic father off Chris's back despite his own ADHD. The school on the verge of closing because of its low test scores, and a mobbed-up local developer is already making plans to buy the land after that happens.

Henry Chen hasn't always been a teacher, of course, but it's oddly relieving that the revelation that he's not some sort of undercover cop or a guy with some sort of secret agenda never comes. His backstory is instead pretty much what one would expect, and it allows writer Chan Tai-li and director Kam Ka-wai to not waste much time on Henry being won over, and a quick montage of him reading the students' files lets them quickly explain what their issues are. There's nothing in the film that is treated as a particular revelation - most folks watching it, whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere, will recognize these as issues that they're aware of but don't give much thought to because they're out of sight, and even the somewhat more arcane question of "teaching to the test" is handled without a lot of speechifying. There are, perhaps, a few instances where the filmmakers could have built things in a way that has them practicing what they preach a bit more: Gladys's story involves her not being given attention because she's a girl, and the movie follows along by only having one out of four or five characters of any import be female, and while Henry's classes celebrate critical thinking and broad knowledge over focusing on the MGE, the students' part of the climax is basically about passing the test and not how they manage it.

That sort of straightforward plotting needs a good cast to bring it to life, and the filmmakers do have that. The center, of course, is Donnie Yen, whose personal story in some ways resembles that of his character with the locations reversed, and for whom this particular project is clearly a labor of love. He spends much of the movie sporting a dorky grin and being utterly sincere while still maintaining a bit of cool, and it works better than it ever seems like it should - even though characters eventually start commenting that Henry is good at everything and gravitating to him, he still comes across as a bit of a goofball. He plays well off his young co-stars and the actors playing their parents, and more importantly, the kids play well off each other. Whether the English names of the characters and actors matching is just something Hong Kong movies often do in the subtitles or is an indication that the casting director found young folks who could effectively play themselves, they feel pretty genuine, and come across as long-time friends in the lighter scenes.

Of course, you don't just hire Donnie Yen to play the goofy teacher, so there are some moments early on where the filmmakers have some fun with the guy being pretty nimble, and then some more serious action with Yen and his stunt team later. The first big one is a bit of a mess - the locker room of a MMA show where Jack has gotten into some trouble has a tough layout, and it seems kind of hard for Kam and all to get good angles - but the big finale is kind of great. Yen and opponent Yu Kang have fought on screen several times before, and they throw themselves into it. There's a big, brawling feel to the action directed by Kenji Tanigaki even as it gets past flashbacks and remorse - they aren't messing around and this isn't a situation where you want the fighting to be pretty.

It's an energizing bit to a movie that at times can earn some audience groans or mocking laughter - for instance, everything with the eagle flying around Henry as he flashes back to a search for new purpose - but the fact that the filmmakers seem to mean every word a character says counts for more than you might expect. "Big Brother" isn't the coolest thing Yen has ever done, but it probably wouldn't work if the folks involved tried to make it that.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32401&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/03/18 01:37:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  31-Aug-2018

UK
  N/A

Australia
  31-Aug-2018


Directed by
  Ka-Wai Kam

Written by
  Tai-lee Chan

Cast
  Donnie Yen
  Joe Chen
  Kang Yu
  Ming-kit Lok
  Dominic Lam



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