Big Brother (Hong Kong, 2018) [SDAFF 2018]

It seems that Big Brother executive producer and star Donnie Yen constructed his newest Cantonese film with surgical precision, surrounding himself with such trusted past collaborators as producer Wong Jing of Chasing the Dragon (2017), screenwriter Chan Tai-lee of Special ID (2013), and director Kam Ka-Wai, who served as assistant director on Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010). Together, they have brought to life a touching ode to diversity with a splash of good old Donnie Yen action.

Yen plays former U. S. Marine Henry Chen who comes back to his hometown wanting to become the empathic and progressive teacher he never had. This naïve idea is confronted with the harsh reality right away – his new class is filled with troublemakers and problematic youngsters. Some of them are so bad they literally cook ramen during the class. To put it simply, this class is a mess. But Chen quickly finds his way to student’s hearts uncovering their personal struggles and guiding them through the bumpy road of life.

There are a lot of topics to unpack here. Big Brother deals with alcoholism, student suicides, racism, sexism or criminal elements, but it’s most noticeably pointing out the flaws in an educational system that prefers uniformity to individuality. Chen quickly learns that problematic students are created by circumstances and Hong Kong style education never finds a way to approach unique individuals. High schools follow universal guidelines – at certain point Chen gets a book called “Teacher Guidelines” which he refuses to use – and reduce people to their exam scores. Yen’s teacher on the other hand understands the importance of diversity and compassion. Most of the film consists of him helping individual students through their struggles with mobsters, alcoholic father, problematic parents or pill addiction.

Big Brother comes up with a simple idea: what if there was some god-like being addressing all the important issues related to education in Hong Kong and single-handedly guiding people out of them? Yen’s teacher is irrational and omnipresent, he has all the answers and can do basically anything. It is all a bit absurd but quite heart-warming. Think of it as a 100-minutes long dialogue between strict conservatism and almost-naïve wishful thinking. This is where Kam’s school drama parts ways with the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Kindergarten Cop (1990) and has more in common with Richard Linklater’s School of Rock (2003). This story takes message of acceptance over silly gags and uses a badass man in ridiculous environment as proof of diversity.

Even Kam’s direction is focused and professional. In the expository montage, it crosscuts between morning rituals of Chen and the young students. Kam shows important aspects of the youngsters’ lives creating contrast between their chaotic waking-up and the Chen’s strict routine. There are two action sequences as well. The former U. S. Marine destroys about twenty people with the help of amazing choreography and one impressive war flashback ensures the viewer gets all-round experience.

Even though exciting, the movie is far from flawless. For example, it finds its bad guys and solutions way too easily, whether a local mobster, a crazy American MMA fighter, alcohol, or an educational approach that ignores individuality. The story points at these problems while suggesting a simple solution – just talk out what is bothering you and accept each other. Thus, Big Brother does not work as complex social drama. It is not dealing with educational limitations as complexly and emotionally as for example Mad World (2016) treats the housing crisis, however, that is understandable. This simplification is needed to ensure blockbuster accessibility.

Big Brother is a drama about Hong Kong’s pressing social issues which has its flaws. However, there is something exciting about a tuned-up drama that starts throwing some literal punches through the story. The premise makes it sound as a film that should be a subpar spin on Kindergarten Cop. Yet surprisingly, it isn’t, since Yen and his team have managed to create a socially conscious and touching story of acceptance with a few thrilling action sequences.

Big Brother is showing on November 15 and 16 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.