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Ark of Mr. Chow, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Not exactly the work of a boy genius."
2 stars

The likely-studio-supplied boilerplate that has shown up in a lot of listings about "The Ark of Mr. Chow" describes it as a satirical look at the Chinese "Youth Class" system, and if it's what passes for satire in China, well, it's a tremendous disappointment to all of us who ever heard that the Chinese symbol for "satire" is "laughter with knives". That's probably not quite true anyway, but even the loosest definition of satire would seem to demand something more barbed - or at least funnier - than what Yang Xiao comes up with here.

The "Youth Class" was a program begun in the People's Republic of China in 1978, aiming to place the best and brightest children of fifteen (or younger) in college. Twenty years later, Chow Zhiyong (Sun Honglei) is recruiting a new class for the school where he teaches, ignoring the communications asking him to stop. We meet five - Fung Ho-cheung (Li Jiaqi), an eleven-year-old prodigy; Mike (Wang Yuexin), a delinquent drop-out working in a nursing home; Dafa (Liu Xilong), an eccentric from the provinces; Cho Lan (Zhou Dongyu), a reserved girl with a crush on Mike; and Way (Dong Zijian), a rather average-seeming boy who has been pushed to the head of the class by his ambitious mother. At school, the boys quickly develop a crush on dance student Elaine (Cici Wang), although Chow would greatly prefer they concentrate their attention on International Mathematical Competition.

Director and co-writer Yang Xiao was in a Youth Class himself, back in 1994, so he comes at the subject with first-hand experience, and in some ways, that appears to limit his perspective as much as inform it: While Way is the narrator, meaning we inevitably see the film from his point of view (which includes staying in a dorm with Fung, Mike, and Dafa), it's still somewhat surprising just how much of a cipher Lan is compared to her male classmates. The opening segment where the audience is introduced to the various students and see some of their background skips right over her, and we only get brief hints at her personality. It's fair that a film mostly focusing on brilliant boys out of their league focus on that, perhaps - Cici Wang's Elaine is similarly vague as a hormone-charging woman in red - but it feels like it's doing gifted young women an injustice.

That would perhaps be okay if the film had much to do otherwise, but that's not the case; despite having a potentially entertaining group of characters, they don't get into much in the way of wacky hijinks, and Wang Yuexin doesn't really look young enough that Mike's attempts to date Elaine come off as being as doomed as they should. The International Mathematics Competition is just something that happens in the background, so much so that when Chow makes an announcement of who will be on the team, it's a bit of a surprise that there was any sort of competition going on. Eventually, what comes into focus is sort of an anti-inspirational teacher story as it becomes clearer that Chow doesn't really have his students' best interests at heart, although the school chancellor that opposes him still comes across as a villain and Chow never really manages to take center stage.

That at least makes Mr. Chow an interesting part for Sun Honglei to play, and he generally finds a good angle on the man. Chow is by turns devious and pathetic, coming across as having authority but also weak. Sun really zooms in on how a man with such flaws can still take up a position as a mentor. It's something you can see reflected in Zhou Dongyu's performance, too - a loneliness and isolation that elicits sympathy until IQ-related snobbery emerges. It's a contrast to the mostly-funny group of guys, with Li Jiaqi and Liu Xilong especially given odd characters to play generally doing a good job of making Fung and Dafa oddballs while also giving an air that being thrown into a regular college environment is probably not doing them any good. Wang Yuexin sort of gets stuck with one of those characters who is described as a troublemaker but who never really does anything unreasonable, while Dong Zijian makes a good narrator, but can't quite give Way the right sort of pathos as a kid who is stuck as a tool to fulfill others' ambitions.

Mostly, that speaks to troubles with the script rather than the performances, and it's worth noting that Xiao Yang fares much better in his first time directing a feature than writing it. Most of his prior credits are as an editor, with some visual effects work mixed in, and both of those sorts of experience show, as the film tends to move smoothly and it's got a fair number of moments that look striking on-screen, although seldom approaching the sort of fancifulness of, say, Starry Starry Night, a film which he cut and where he contributed to the effects. It helps make The Ark of Mr. Chow an occasionally entertaining movie, even as it fizzles.

Indeed, by the end, a viewer is disappointed by the lack of satire (the movie never really does exaggerate anything or role-reverse or the like to illustrate a point), may actually find himself or herself pining for formula: Let these fish out of water accomplish something, overcoming the persecution they get from either side, or find someone that gets them, or just let the have a big moment of well-intentioned genius-kid havoc. Instead, the film often feels like it is trying to be serious about something important without actually understanding what the important part is.

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originally posted: 06/22/15 03:00:56
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Directed by
  Yang Xiao

Written by
  Yang Xiao
  Ji Zhang

  Honglei Sun
  Zijian Dong
  Jiaqi Li
  Yuexin Wang
  Dongyu Zhou
  Cici Wang

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