Fantasia 2018: In Big Brother, Donnie Yen plays the teacher we wish we had in high school

Donnie Yen plays teacher Henry Chen Xia in the film Big Brother.

Dedicated teacher tries to get rebellious high-school students to smarten up and take school seriously. This is a familiar plot, but the teacher in Big Brother is played by martial-arts superstar Donnie Yen, so that’s a big plus.

Even though Yen’s character, first-time teacher Henry Chen Xia, is smart, funny and caring, we know he won’t be accepted right away, he has to win the students over. Watching him do it is part of the fun.

Each student has at least one problem on the home front that has contributed to their seeming indifference to school; Chen tries his best to solve all those problems.

The future of the entire school is in Chen’s hands, since the Hong Kong education department will close it if the dismal pass rate doesn’t improve. On top of that, gangsters are waiting to pounce on the school site so they can build luxury condos on it.

But, but. . .what about the fights? It wouldn’t be a Donnie Yen film without them, but by Yen’s own choice, Big Brother is more about education than anything. It isn’t wall-to-wall fighting that’s barely held together with a paper-thin plot.

Donnie Yen as Henry Chen Xia, ready to defend his school.

 

Chen’s search for a missing student leads him to a locker room just before a (crooked) mixed-martial arts tournament. This gives Yen a chance to mix it up with burly, scary looking guys played by Kang Yu, Lockhart Ogilvie, Jess Liaudin, Brahim Achabbakhe, Tom Caserto, and Semiquaver Iafeta. “Look, guys, I’m not looking for any trouble,” he tells them in English. Ha, ha! Fans know what to expect next!

Conveniently enough, Kang Yu’s character is also involved in the development scheme, so he and assorted minions will battle Chen again in the schoolyard and inside the school, shattering glass, throwing desks and breaking many things while they’re at it.

A long-ago fight, with Lin Quinan playing the young Henry Chen, is quite impressive, too. This young man has star potential! In fact, he was in a 2016 film called Long quan xiao zi (Kungfu Boys).

in Donnie Yen’s film Big Brother, Lin Quinan (left) plays Henry Chen Xia in his student days. Kang Yu (right) plays the main villain. 

From my description, the film might seem terribly corny but it did not feel that way while I was watching it. There are some “I see what you did there!” moments, and I was fine with them, too.

I appreciated that Yen’s character is not just a fighting machine, he’s a caring human being. Teacher Chen has had his share of problems, and seen many horrific things, but he survived to tell the tale. He doesn’t want his students to give up on themselves while they’re still in their teens. And if life is unfair, why not fight to make it better? Just as important, he doesn’t want the education authorities to give up on the “difficult” students, either. Does closing an underperforming school really solve anything? Why not work to improve them?

Donnie Yen put his money and his star power behind this film, which is obviously dear to his heart. If Big Brother encourages some students to stay in school and leads school administrators to rethink their methods, Yen will have accomplished a lot. And more power to him!

I’ll include other details about Big Brother in a post about Kam Ka-Wai, the film’s director. Kam participated in a Q&A session after the film and granted me an interview as well.

BTW: I saw the World Premiere of Big Brother with lots of Donnie Yen fans at a sold-out screening at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal – the very best of circumstances! Donnie Yen even sent us a video greeting! He wanted to present the film in Montreal himself but logistics didn’t allow it. (He’s shooting a film in Japan and cannot be away from the set for long.)

Big Brother will open In Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore on August 16, 2018, and in China and Taiwan on August 24. No word about a North American or European release yet, so maybe Donnie Yen fans should get going on social media and ask for it.

BIG BROTHER
Hong Kong, China (2018)
101 minutes, In Cantonese with English and Chinese Subtitles
Director: Kam Ka-Wai
Writer: Chan Tai Lee
Cast: Donnie Yen, Joe Chen, Yu Kang, Lou Mingji
Contact: Mega Vision

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Fantasia 2018: The People’s Republic of Desire Review

 

Livestreaming celebrity Shen Man in a scene from the documentary film The People’s Republic of Desire.

Yes, Fantasia shows documentaries, too!

The People’s Republic of Desire is a fascinating (and sad, disturbing and depressing) introduction to China’s livestreaming celebrities. Some people from very humble beginnings have become rich and famous because they are very good at cajoling, begging, browbeating their fans into sending them gifts and money, lots of money.

(I’ll confess, while watching the first few minutes of the film I wondered if “success” could really be this easy? During the Q&A, I found out that I was not the only one. Of course, we later find out that fame can be fickle.)

Some of those fans are filthy rich, and they support their favourite star because they have so much money that they can afford to throw it away. Being a generous patron brings them fame, too. In the case of female celebrities, many of the (male) patrons want to sleep with them. The celebrities walk a tightrope, flirting and teasing without satisfying these guys. (If they succumb, the gifts will stop, the guys will blab, and millions of people will accuse them of being sluttish.)

Other fans are quite poor themselves, but they feel a sense of solidarity with the stars, who were once as poor as they are. Following the stars, and helping to support them, brings some pleasure to their otherwise boring and difficult lives. Collectively, the fans call themselves an “army.”

The People’s Republic of Desire concentrates on “comedian” Big Li, “singer” Shen Man, their families and their fans. I use quotes above because we don’t hear many of Li’s jokes or Shen’s songs. Her voice sounds OK, but director Hao Wu shows us what I think is a vocoder – is that the audio equivalent of plastic surgery? Shen admits that she has had plenty of surgery, too.

On the other hand, Big Li is fat and not handsome, either, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming popular. His wife is his manager which puts a strain on their marriage. He sometimes rebels against her like a kid who doesn’t want to get up or eat his vegetables. He is also under pressure to join a big management company. Yes, there is lots of competition to manage the celebrities and take a cut of their earnings.

Shen Man has pressures of her own – she is the sole support of her father, stepmother and younger siblings. And who bought that furniture, anyway? It’s really quétaine, as we say here in Quebec.

In the Q&A director Hao Wu explains that he had intended to follow the stars for just one year, but that turned into three. An annual competition for most popular celebrity provides a natural focus. Shen Man has won it, ands wants to stay on top. Big Li has lost several times and wonders if he should keep fighting or just give it all up. The awards show for the competition looks just as glitzy as Hollywood’s Oscars and Golden Globes. Maybe it has a large audience, too.

The graphics in The People’s Republic of Desire are superlative, immersive and very busy!

The film has won many awards already and will probably continue to do so. See it if you can! Hao Wu will be at the Fantasia screening to answer questions.

DIRECTOR: Hao Wu
WRITER: Hao Wu
CAST: Jiang Congyong, Man Shen, Li Xianliang
PRODUCER: Hao Wu
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Hao Wu
SOUND DESIGNER: Ron Bochar
COMPOSER: Michael Tuller
EDITOR: Hao Wu
ANIMATOR: Eric Jordan
CONTACT: Tripod Media LLC
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: https://www.desire.film
HONORS: Grand Jury Award (Documentary), SXSW 2018, Grand Jury Award (International Documentary), Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival 2018, 21 CF Award, Best Cinematography, CAAMFest 2018

The People’s Republic of Desire, Friday, July 20, 2018, 1:00 PM, Salle J.A. De Sève, 1400 de Maisonneuve W.
Metro Guy-Concordia

P.S. When I read the synopsis of The People’s Republic of Desire I thought that it might be a bit like the film Dragonfly Eyes, shown here in Montreal at the 2017 edition of the RIDM documentary festival. It isn’t really, though the main character does become an Internet celebrity near the end. Dragonfly Eyes has mixed reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but I thought it was worth watching.

 

Fantasia 2018: Tremble All You Want Review

In this scene from the Japanese romantic comedy Tremble All You Want, Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka) is trapped between her crush Ichi (Takumi Kitamura, foreground) and dorky, would-be boyfriend Ni (Daichi Watanabe).

Briefly: Tremble All You Want is a Japanese romantic comedy. It’s funny, with gusts to hilarious. There are some sad moments, too. I enjoyed it immensely, even though I do not like, agree with, or approve of the ending, and some other script decisions.

Would I recommend it to my friends, and to others?

For sure I would! I was going to say, I would recommend it to all but the most cynical friends. But on second thought, cynical people might find it funny too! Read the synopsis on the Fantasia web site by clicking on Tremble All You Want.

 

In a scene from the Japanese romantic comedy Tremble All You Want, Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka) enjoys her magical fossil. (It’s called an ammonite. You could look it up!)

TREMBLE ALL YOU WANT

DIRECTOR/ WRITER: Akiko Ohku
CAST:Anna Ishibashi, Takumi Kitamura, Mayu Matsuoka, Daichi Watanabe

Tremble All You Want
Tuesday, July 17, 2018
3:00 PM
Salle J.A. De Sève
1400 de Maisonneuve West
(Metro Guy-Concordia )

P.S. This is very short for a review, right? I will write more soon, but wanted to get these few words up to encourage Montrealers to see the film.