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BIG BROTHER (2018) review

September 3, 2018

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written by: Tai-lee Chan
produced by: Wong Jin and Donnie Yen
directed by: Kam Ka-Wai
rated: not rated
runtime: 101 min.
U.S. release date: August 31, 2018

 

If you’ve followed Donnie Yen’s career at all, you probably know to expect some martial arts action in each of his movies. If you’ve paid closer attention, you’ll know that the Hong Kong actor is also a choreographer, producer and director, known most recently on an international level for a supporting role in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and in “xXx: Return of Xander Cage”, in which he continued to rely on his mixed martial arts talents. In his latest, “Big Brother”, in which he co-produced and stars, Yen is subverting audience expectations by playing a high school teacher, of all things. If you wind up seeing this movie solely out of curiosity and have an open mind, you’re likely to be as entertained as I was. Despite some elements that I would typically associate with shortcomings, I was won over by the intent and tone here.

Henry Chen (Donnie Yen) is the new Liberal Studies teacher of Class 6B at Zak Chi Secondary School in Hong Kong. With no previous teaching experience and a background as a U.S. Marine, the school headmaster (Ying Kwan Lok) was reluctant to hire Chen at first, but was persuaded when he read an impressive letter of recommendation. When Chen is asked why he wants to teach, he plays coy. Clearly there’s a reason, which we’ll eventually find out, but at the onset there’s an air of mystery about this character. Of course, the class he’s assigned to comes straight out of the playbook of irreverent, unruly and disrespectful kids who challenge the new teacher with a unique method. But, that’s one of the reasons why I found myself immediately liking “Big Brother”.

 

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I found myself wanting to see what screenwriter Tai-lee Chan (who wrote all the “Ip Man” movies Yen starred in) was going to do with these familiar teacher/student tropes (the kind that have a genre all their own with American releases such as “Stand and Deliver” and “Dead Poet’s Society”, to name a few) and how Yen and director Kam Ka-Wei would approach the material. So yes, while the seemingly all-knowing, blue jean-wearing character of Mr. Chen is familiar – patient with students, meets them where they’re and who incorporates unconventional methods that capture the attention of fellow teachers and the school board – it’s still a different setting and location than we’re used to for this kind of story (American audiences, at least).

The first day of class in a movie like this is always interesting and will typically be a time where we see the new teacher raise their voice or lay down the law. Not the case here. Chen’s class is filled with students doing their own thing (from sleeping or playing video games to making some cash cooking and selling noodles right there in class), but Chen approaches just about every student and gets his or her attention by showing interest or sharing some knowledge in what they are doing. It’s one of many moments in “Big Brother” where our expectations will be subverted.

When it becomes clear to Chen that there’s a certain quintet of his students who are at the heart of the troublemaking at school, he begins to take a different approach and is soon seen scouring through each student’s file in order to get learn about them. This sequence is handled in a unique manner, as we’re shown individual background sequences with voice narration from each student, providing us with context for their behavior. Jack Li (Jack Lok) comes from a poor family and lives off social aids in a rundown project with his grandmother after his parents died, while working part-time at a Chinese restaurant. Gladys Wang (Gladys Li) is a tomboy who yearns to drive race cars, yet feels like her patriarchal father loves her brother more. A ukulele player with pop star aspirations, Gordon Lau (Gordon Xiang, an internet sensation in Hong Kong) is made fun of often because he’s South Asian and looks different from his peers, something that shatters his confidence and ambition. Twin brothers, Chris and Bruce Guan (real-life twin brothers, Chris Tong and Bruce Tong) live with their neglectful alcoholic father and have to fend for themselves most of the time. The hard-working Bruce dreams of getting rich and living a life of luxury, but his is hampered by crippling ADHD. Chris would rather lose himself in gaming and hopes to become an E-sport champion rather than deal with the pain and frustration of his home life.

Where the movie goes from here is obvious. Chen makes deliberate efforts to get involved in the lives of each student just enough to let them and their families realize that he knows and cares about them. His off-campus visits are unassuming and feel natural, although they’re often accompanied by pop songs that have feel-good lyrics (akin to inspirational memes), but for some reason I chewed AND swallowed the cheese being served here, because the movie’s heart is in the right overall. Eventually (and inevitably), the problem students and their families are so affected by Chen that they make some heart-tugging steps in the right direction and wind up defending Chen as his controversial methods are scrutinized by his superiors.

 

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Just how he is scrutinized stems from a physical altercation he gets into with a buff goon (Brahim Achabbakhe) who reports to Kane Lu (Yu Kang) the proverbial bad guy of the movie. Lu is the owner of a local boxing gym, but also has his hands in property development and may make a bid on Chen’s school. Just like the information we learn about the students contextualize their behavior, we learn more about both Lu and Chen’s past that spells out exactly why they’re made certain decisions in the present.

Since Chen is the titular character (oddly enough, his students only call him that once, but whatever), he gets the lengthier backstory. It’s thankfully well into the movie when we see flashback footage of his time in the battlefield as a Marine as he sees the atrocities of humanity at its worst. This leads Chen to “walk the earth” and “find himself”, something we learn during a “searching” montage where he embarks in an off-the-grid sojourn across the globe, eventually realizing he needs to go back to his home and make a difference. We hear Yen’s Chen narrate how he felt like a falcon was following him, guiding him, the entire time and…showing him something. I don’t know. It’s during these moments in the movie where you really have to surrender and just go with it, if you’re going to be on board. What can I say? I totally went for it, primarily because Yen sells an earnestness and sincerity, that’s free of any ego or cynicism and that’s quite refreshing.

But wait, isn’t Donnie Yen going to fight in “Big Brother?” Come on, of course he is. The big difference is, this isn’t an action movie per se, so when the two or three action sequences occur they serve the character and the story, plus there’s a slightly humorous tone included to these scenes, partly due to the locker room, playground and classroom setting in which the occur. If the movie starred Jackie Chan the situations and setting would be more outrageous or exaggerated, but with Yen, who plays the patient character with sincerity and a stoic wink, there’s an intriguing curiosity to the whole thing.

That said, “Big Brother” is obviously not a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. You have to be able to roll with a bunch of Christian Rock-style song cues, with cut-and-paste refrains about how much you can do “when you believe” and you “keep your head up, keep your faith.” You also have to accept several leaps in feel-good logic, like the weird notion that Chen’s students should want to pass their college entrance exams just to prove to Mr. Chen’s colleagues that his eccentric methods work (ie: Don’t believe in yourself for you, do it for him!). You also have to wait a while before Yen beats up a bad guy in a brawl involving a fire sprinkler and a room-full of school desks. No need to be concerned about Yen’s physicality, at 55, he’s in better shape than most twentysomethings in action roles (not that there are many) and he displays a spryness and vitality that’s uncanny and quite impressive.

It may be more classroom melodrama than straight-up action flick and its manipulation is present and accounted for, but “Big Brother” is nevertheless an enjoyable viewing experience.

Between seven production companies and two distributors, it’s baffling that “Big Brother” has zero marketing. I knew nothing about the movie until about a week before its limited release. “Big Brother” made its world premiere early last month at Fantasia Fest in Canada and since then has been released in about five Asian cities, before dropping here in the States. It’ll play for about a week in only a handful of theaters in major metropolitan areas (AMC River East here in Chicago). Maybe they couldn’t figure out the marketing or felt there’d be no audience for such a movie. I disagree. It may not show the full range of his MMA or Wing Chun, but it should be noted that this is a solid gateway movie to Yen’s work for young viewers.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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