Movie Review: Big Brother (2018)
It sounded like fun. The new teacher for ne’er-do-well kids in a poor Hong Kong neighborhood is Donnie Yen, Ip Man himself, who, when the kids act up, or when gangs threaten the school, breaks out the gongfu. It’s “To Sir, With Love” meets “Iron Monkey.”
I was also intrigued by what ne’er-do-well kids in a Chinese movie are like. Turns out:
- Two brothers have an alcoholic dad, so one escapes into video games, the other into Ritalin
- One girl feels like her dad doesn’t love her so she wants to race cars
- A Pakistani kid wants to sing but remembers when others kids laughed at him because his Cantonese was good even though his face was dark, so he can’t
- One boy schleps for a local gang
There’s also a fat kid but he’s just fat; he gets no backstory.
As bad as all that sounds? It's worse than that.
When Henry Chen (Yen) first shows up in class, none of the kids pay attention. So he pays attention to them. Individually, he asks after their interests. They don’t care. To be honest, they seemed more spoiled than underprivileged. 他们不是乖孩子。 So he activates the fire-safety sprinklers, dousing them all, while he smiles, self-satisfied, beneath an umbrella.
The next day they try to get him back with the water-bucket-over-the-doorway trick. It’s like they’re the Katzenjammer kids. And of course it doesn’t work. He kicks the bucket across the room, dousing them all in the process. They’re amazed but not particuarly curious. They should be saying “Wow. Who the fuck is this guy?” But no.
Oh, then he solves all of their problems. All of them. Like that.
He gets the Pakistani kid up on stage. He gets the girl to race go-karts with her dad; and when she crashes, Dad, thinking she’s dead, breaks down, sobbing, saying how much he always loved her, and she overhears. 当然。The most clichéd problem and insulting resolution is the alcoholic dad. He comes homes from what little work he does and demands the kids buy him booze. Then one day Mr. Chen sends the class on a field trip to a rehab center. And guess who’s speaking? Dad! Not sure when he decided to give up drink—the night before?—and if this is what the Chinese do instead of AA meetings. Is it supposed to help addicts? Bare your soul to some high school kids who don’t know shit. What step is that—lucky 13th?
The gang kid story is the most convoluted. He lives in a shack with his sweet, obtuse grandma who sells things on the streets. When he steals the gold lighter of a gang boss (Yu Kang), he’s beaten up and then forced to join the gang. His first test? To drug an ultimate fighter who refuses to take a fall for the money. But the kid isn’t sly about it, the fighter’s manager catches him in the act, and all of them force the kid to drink a lot of water (????), and then shove him in a locker. They’re high-fiving each other in the loutish way of foreign villains in Hong Kong movies when Chen shows up, figures everything out, and takes them all on. He’s defeating 5, 10 of them, including eventually an ultimate fighting champion, and when he momentarily loses the upper hand, they do that loutish high-five thing again. Really? As with the kids, none of them wonder, “Hey, who the fuck is this guy?” Wouldn’t that be more interesting? That curiosity?
Anyway, Mr. Chen solves the kids’ problems (“The White Shadow” wishes he were this involved in his students' lives) and we’re about 30-45 minutes in. So what’s going to happen now? Well, we finally find out who the fuck this guy is.
The incident with the ultimate fighter leads to a news story, and the journalists do the due diligence the school didn’t. They get Chen’s backstory. Turns out he’s a former U.S. Marine.
Chinese movies have an odd love for the Marines, don’t they? At one point in “Wolf Warrior II,” Leng Feng, its jingoistic hero, admits U.S. Marines may be the best fighting force in the world before adding, “But where are they now?” The implication is that America cuts and runs. The implication here is the exact opposite: America fights forever. Our wars never end. That’s why Chen—in a not-good flashback—leaves the Marines; he gets worn down. Then he walks the earth, as Jules said of Kwai-chang Caine. He tries to find a purpose again. He’s also being followed by an eagle—to which, sure—and he remembers eagles always return home to nest. So that’s what he does. He returns to the secondary school he was kicked out of so he can teach kids like he was back then. It’s “Welcome Back, Kotter” meets “Restrepo.” Except awful.
What are the movie’s other conflicts?
- The school needs to do well in the national exams or fold
- Gangsters want to demolish the school for a development deal
All of this comes to a head on the same day. The gangsters take the students hostage so they can’t attend exams. But Mr. Chen to the rescue. 当然。Turns out the gang leader is the kid Chen beat up back in the day, hurting his hand and making it impossible for him to play the piano. That’s why he's a gangster. As we all know, the fallback position for any classical pianist is a life of crime.
But it all ends well for him and for everyone else onscreen. Just not for me. By the end, I was exhausted by how stupid it was.