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Mr. Donkey
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by Jay Seaver

"The teacher being an ass is only half this school's problem."
4 stars

Describe the plot of "Mr. Donkey", in which the faculty of a small rural school pretends that their donkey is a teacher in order to increase their meager budget only to run afoul of an insistent bureaucrat, and it doesn't sound like much other than a hard sell. Once it starts to play out, though, it actually becomes something as fascinating as it is funny, even if it does stumble a bit toward the end.

The school in question is out in the desert, built out of a one-time Rain God Temple, serving a number of small villages, although enrollment is dropping every semester. Principal Sun Henghai (Da Li) is dedicated, and he has three teachers on faculty - his former student Zhou Tienan (Liu Shualiang), free spirit Zhang Yiman (Ren Suxi), and her would-be lover Pei Kuishan. Sun's daughter Jia (Bu Guanjin) tends Dashei, the donkey they use to fetch necessary water, and whose teacher's salary from the government helps pay for incidentals. Unfortunately, the government is sending Commissioner Lee (Han Yanbo) to investigate the entire faculty, and the only person available to fill in as "Lyu Dashei" is a hick coppersmith (A Runa) who barely speaks Mandarin, let along the fluent English he's supposed to be teaching.

Filmmakers Liu Lu and Zhou Shen, adapting their own play, maybe seem like they miss an opportunity or two at first, starting things off with a lot of potentially funny things having already happened - the initial decision to put the donkey on the payroll, an apparently-abortive tryst between Yiman and Kuishan, Tienan having a crush on Jia, a couple other times they had to explain the lack of a fifth teacher. On the other hand, they take advantage of not needing to have people look ridiculous from the outset to be able to set up a bunch of cascading, funny gags, with the teachers able to do a lot of funny, casual back-and-forth before things expand to include the coppersmith and the commissioner. Liu & Zhou are kind enough not to use this to hide things, but instead smoothly drop the information that the audience will need to appreciate the next gag in so that it doesn't feel like the audience is coming in late.

There are a lot of good gags in there, and that's not even counting the number of times the audience around me cracked up at the coppersmith saying something that was only subtitled "local dialect" for those of us who don't speak Mandarin. There's a playful start that gives way to something sharper, as jokes about a weird situation initiated by well-meaning people turn into satire about corruption and misplaced charitable largesse. The ideas that funding something worthwhile sometimes has to be done via deception and that doing so leads even good people to questionable actions were there from the start, but it lead to bigger, more absurd deceptions, with the cast - notably A Runa, Han Yanbo, and Pei Kuishan (the actor and character appear to share a name) - making an impressive transition to the more cynical material.

The most cynical material is actually much darker than expected, and comes off as something of a strange detour, as several of the male characters either decide that the root of their problems is Yiman's sexual independence or at least see an opportunity to punish her for it. It's a nasty stretch that offers a starker commentary on its issues than some of the material that came before - though that the filmmakers do use the 1942 setting, before the proclamation of the People's Republic, as license to portray government bureaucrats as more selfish and cruel than Chinese films set in a more contemporary period can, there's nothing funny about how Yiman is humiliated, and very little when it looks like Jia will be the one to pay for the men's errors. I suspect that the women in the audience, in particular, might find it simultaneously too real and too melodramatic.

It's an interesting way to build the film, and the two sets of themes do seem a little more connected in retrospect than they do in the moment, when the movie seems to flail a bit after reaching an apparent end (though even then, I kind of admire dropping some righteous feminist anger in the laps of people who signed up for a light farce). Liu, Zhou, and crew adapt the theatrical production to film very well - though the action mostly takes place in just a couple of rooms, the presentation never feels boxed in or like too much effort has been made to open it up. The visual elements are a neat mix of styles, from the temple's adaptation as a classroom - though one only used by adults taking the place of children in the film - to the not-quite-stylish 1940s fashions to the emptiness around the school that let the filmmakers do a lot with relatively little.

The viewer gets pulled in enough different directions by the time credits roll that he or she may wind up wondering whether or not it quite accomplished what it set out to do, which isn't the best reaction to have walking out of the theater. But while the comedy and commentary don't always work hand-in-hand, they're each good enough to make for an uncommonly forceful farce, worth listening to even when it's a bit wobbly.

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originally posted: 11/04/16 10:39:15
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Directed by
  Lu Liu
  Shen Zhou

Written by
  Lu Liu
  Shen Zhou

  Li Da
  Shualiang Liu
  Suxi Ren

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