Little Big Master
Hong Kong, 2015, colour, 2.35:1, 112 mins.
Director: Guan Xinhui 关信辉 [Adrian Kwan].
A well-tooled but very generic heartwarmer about a selfless kindergarten teacher.
Hong Kong, the present day. After being forced to bow to pressure from some influential parents to keep their son in “gifted” classes, Lv Huihong (Yang Qianhua), headmistress of the private King Kids International Kindergarten, resigns her post. The same day, her husband Xie Yongdong (Gu Tianle), who designs museum exhibitions, also resigns; when he has worked out his existing contract, the couple plan to spend time travelling, so that Lv Huihong can fully recover from recently having a tumour removed. Two months later, bored with self-improvement classes, Lv Huihong spots a TV news item about a kindergarten in Yuan Tian village, Yuan Lang district, New Territories, that will close due to a shortage of pupils, unless it can find a new head and keep at least five pupils. Despite the low monthly salary of HK$4,500, Lv Huihong applies for the job and is given it by the Village Office head (Feng Cuifan), at least for the four months until the end of the current term. If there are less than five pupils for the new school year, the kindergarten, which was founded in 1950, will be closed by the Village Rural Committee, which has a financially aggressive new head, Feng (Li Jiarong). The five remaining students are all girls and come from poor families. He Xiaoxue (He Woying) has an aged father (Wu Yaohan) who’s a scrap-metal scavenger; Lu Jiajia (Fu Shunying) has a father (Jiang Haowen) who’s lost a leg and can’t find work; following her parents’ death, Tan Meizhu (Wang Shiya) is looked after by an aunt (Wu Huanyi) who struggles to make ends meet; and the education of Pakistani sisters Kitty and Jennie Fathima (Zaha Fathima, Khan Nayab) is not seen as a priority by their hard-up parents (Dhillon Harjit Singh, Asnani Mena). Lv Huihong patiently helps to solve the kids’ problems by getting to know their parents. One month before the end of term, she organises an open day to recruit new students, and also presents a proposal to an old business friend, Qian Baoyi (Liang Zhijian), for raising money for the kindergarten. But both things are easier said than done.
A plucky teacher struggles to keep a kindergarten open in the rural New Territories in Little Big Master 五个小孩的校长, an effective but generic heartwarmer that gets by thanks to smooth production values, a total lack of cynicism and a likeable lead performance by Yang Qianhua 杨千嬅 [Miriam Yeung]. Devoted teachers, cute kids and the struggle to ensure education have long been staples of Chinese melodrama, and Master doesn’t add anything new to the mix other than a mild attack of the social conscience that Hong Kong Cinema is occasionally heir to. Writer-director Guan Xinhui 关信辉 [Adrian Kwan], a committed Christian and so-called “gospel director” (Life Is a Miracle 生命因爱动听, 2001; The Miracle Box 天作之盒, 2004), keeps clear here of any overt sermonising and focuses on human charity in its broadest form, as well as drawing good performances from top to bottom. But at the end of the day Master is just a well-tooled weepie with little dramatic depth.
The script by Kwan and previous co-writer Zhang Peiqiong 张佩琼 [Hannah Chang] (a fellow Christian and professional counsellor) is based on the true story of Lv Lihong 吕丽红 [Lillian Lui], 49, who successfully took over a nigh-defunct kindergarten in the New Territories village of Yuan Gang in 2009. Apart from a few small name changes, the film sticks pretty closely to the facts, with Yang even looking fairly like the real Lv. What’s lacking is any real drama or conflict beyond the most obvious devices. Lv goes around solving her five pupils’ family problems, and the local Village Rural Committee head (Li Jiarong 李家荣 [Fire Lee], looking like a triad villain) pops up occasionally to remind her that the school is on borrowed time. But otherwise the film largely relies on Yang interacting with the kids – all charmingly played without any grating cuteness – and lots of talk about following your dream. A bespectacled Gu Tianle 古天乐 [Louis Koo] drifts in and out as Lv’s largely supportive husband, but for a climax (of sorts) the script relies on the TV drama-like device of Lv being hospitalised for a recurring tumour.
Yang’s typically easy charm and simpatico chemistry with the kids prevent the film from looking like just a vanity assignment, while veterans like Wu Yaohan 吴耀汉 [Richard Ng] and Jiang Haowen 姜皓文 [Philip Keung] clock in reliably as parents. Technically the film is very smooth in all departments, with the sleepy New Territories village setting convincingly evoked by the summery widescreen images of d.p. Pan Yaoming 潘耀明 [Anthony Pun], art direction for the shabby school by Wang Huiyin 王慧茵, and invisible editing by Peng Zhengxi 彭正熙 [Curran Pang]. The score by Wang Jianwei 王建威 is never far away but avoids over-cranking the drama. The Chinese title means “Five Kids and Their Headmistress”, which is infinitely better than the meaningless English one.
Presented by Universe Entertainment (HK). Produced by Sirius Pictures International (HK).
Script: Guan Xinhui [Adrian Kwan], Zhang Peiqiong [Hannah Chang]. Photography: Pan Yaoming [Anthony Pun]. Editing: Peng Zhengxi [Curran Pang]. Music: Wang Jianwei. Art direction: Wang Huiyin. Costume design: Chen Jiayi. Sound: He Zhitang, Zeng Jingxiang [Kinson Tsang]. Visual effects: Zheng Wenzheng, Zhang Yaohao (Creasun Digital International).
Cast: Yang Qianhua [Miriam Yeung] (Lv Huihong), Gu Tianle [Louis Koo] (Xie Yongdong), He Woying (He Xiaoxue), Fu Shunying (Lu Jiajia), Wang Shiya (Tan Meizhu), Zaha Fathima (Kitty Fathima), Khan Nayab (Jennie Fathima, Kitty’s younger sister), Wu Yaohan [Richard Ng] (Mr. He, He Xiaoxue’s father), Wu Huanyi (Auntie Xian, Tan Meizhu’s aunt), Jiang Haowen [Philip Keung] (Lu Qiang, Lu Jiajia’s father), Liu Yucui (Mrs. Lu), Asnani Mena (Kitty and Jennie’s mother), Dhillon Harjit Singh (her husband), Feng Cuifan [Stanley Fung] (Yuan Tian Village Office head), Ma Yuke (estate agent), Li Jiarong [Fire Lee] (Feng, Yuan Tian Village Rural Committee head), Huang Wenhui (street cleaner), Lin Xiaozhan (Yuan Tian Village Office head’s wife), Liang Zhijian [Sammy Leung] (Qian Baoyi/Bowie), Gong Ci’en [Mimi Kung] (Anita, King Kids International Kindergarten teacher), He Songting (Martin Tang), He Qinghui (Martin Tang’s father), Jin Xianxian (Martin Tang’s mother), Qin Huang (Huang, grocer), Feng Subo (Lv Huihong’s mother), Ou Jintang (Lv Huihong’s elder brother), Ou Qianyi (his wife), He Guorong (Tony), Li Yilang (Jie), Li Chengchang (restaurant manager), Long Tiansheng (villager).
Release: Hong Kong, 19 Mar 2015.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 12 Apr 2015.)