BIG BROTHER (2018) review

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The production partnership of Wong Jing and Donnie Yen cannot be accused of a lack of variety: after the gangster epic Chasing the Dragon, and before the fatsuit comedy Enter the Fat Dragon, here comes the inspirational school drama Big Brother, directed by recent Wong favorite Kam Ka Wai (iGirl, Colour of the Game, Queen of Triads). Yen is Henry Chen, an ex-military who after a traumatic war experience and a period of soul-searching and traveling, turns up at his old secondary school of Tak Chi, now struggling amid funding cuts and real estate scheming, and asks to be a teacher of liberal arts, despite a lack of credentials in the field. The school is direly understaffed and so the principal (Dominic Lam) quickly accepts. But Henry Chen’s students are an unruly bunch, the rejects of the flawed Hong Kong school system, and unwilling to listen to him. The new teacher will have to get their attention, inspire them, and in some cases, rescue them from dangerous situations.

The road to film hell isn’t much different from the road to regular hell: it is also paved with good intentions. And there’s not doubting the fine, good-hearted intentions of Kam Ka Wai’s Big Brother. It aims to tackle the painful subject of education in Hong Kong, where only 20% emerge victorious from their school years, but does so with the most thudding, didactic dialogues between Henry Chen and the school principal. Rather than interactions between human beings, these feel like two people reading pamphlets aloud at each other. It wants to celebrate the teacher’s noble mission, but does so with the most unrealistic, borderline cartoonish depiction of the job, and by making Henry Chen a sort of perfect human being, gifted with endless patience, unlimited time to deal with his students woes (inside and outside of the school), seemingly a lot of money to spend, razor-sharp sensibility, and of course, superior fighting skills that allow him to fend off multiple MMA fighters at a time. It attempts to be a portrait of redemption, with Henry Chen a troubled, violent kid, turned traumatized soldier, turned inspiring teacher, but undermines this arc with the most absurd twist connecting the tormentor of one of the students to Henry’s past. It aspires to depict the struggles of Hong Kong’s youth through Henry Chen’s students, but they’re like the seven dwarves of teenager representation: there’s Angry, Creative, Fatty, Gamer, Tomboy, Druggy, Outsider… And it seeks to convey the message that violence is never right, but features two protracted fight scenes where Henry Chen triumphantly pummels and stabs multiple opponents at a time.

Yet though a selection of treacly, trite songs attack the ears every 10 minutes, the subtly green pastel hues of the cinematography create a visually pleasing aura of hope, and while his character makes Jesus Christ look like a seedy predator, Donnie Yen radiates charisma and wisdom; it’s not a subtle performance, but it’s a gloriously starry one. Joe Chen makes the most of her tiny, inconsequential role with irresistibly cute and funny clumsiness, getting one of the film’s rare intended laughs (Billy Lau also entertains has a harsh father with a soft heart). And the two fight scenes, while incongruous in the film’s inspirational scheme, are magnificent, up to Yen and his team’s lofty standards (Kenji Tanigaki gets top action directing billing here): a furious, destructive locker room brawl and a superb final fight in the school where amusing baddie Yu Kang exclaims ‘I love playing the piano!” – it makes sense within the plot, but it’s still a funny thing to scream after a bone-crunching fight.

Long Story Short: Risibly trite and ill-conceived as an inspirational drama, Big Brother nevertheless manages to entertain thank to Donnie Yen’s winning charisma, Joe Chen’s comic timing, and a couple of outstanding fight scenes. **

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