Think of this crusading teacher movie as “To Sir, with Kung Fu.” Imagine what LuLu’s title tune could have been with lyrics like that. In fact, Henry Chen will even inspire a student with Cantopop dreams. The Hong Kong born-and-raised former U.S. Marine quickly wins over his class of under-achievers, but they will have to pass the HK university admittance exam for themselves in Kam Ka-wai’s Big Brother (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Chen was a real trouble maker when he attended Tak Chi Secondary School, but he still distinguished himself as the class Tai Kwon Do champion. He continued to sharpen his marital arts skills while serving as a Marine, gaining self-discipline in the process. However, he needed a new direction after a particularly rough Middle East deployment, so here he is, teaching at his alma mater. At first, his five hardest cases think they can prank Chen, but that misconception lasts about ten seconds. Yet, Chen surprises everybody, by really digging into their troubled circumstances.
A few parent-teacher conferences later and Chen has his class in the best emotional state of their young lives. However, trouble is brewing from developers who covet Tak Chi’s real estate. Naturally, Chen will find himself under fire from the HK educational bureaucracy, like Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver, and in real life, but Henry Chen is not about to slink off after a few “Oh Captain, My Captains,” as if this were a HK Dead Poets Society. He’s played by Donnie Yen, after all.
Yen can light up the screen with his energy and charisma, but it is also really obvious when he is not feeling it. However, in this case we can see he is really digging the change of pace. There are two really dynamite extended fight scenes in Big Brother, but for the most part, this is a pretty straight teacher-who-makes-a-difference movie. Granted, Chan Tai-lee’s screenplay follows a well-established formula, but the sunny vibe and Yen’s charm make it all quite enjoyable. Of course, when Yen throws down, he throws the heck down.
Plus, the supporting ensemble is ridiculously attractive. Model-turned actress Gladys Li is obviously going to be a star judging from her scene-stealing work as tomboy Gladys Wang. Gordon Lau also supplies a strong rooting interest as second-generation Pakistani immigrant and aspiring Cantopop singer Gordon Xiang. On the grown-up side, Taiwanese actress Joe Chen develops some nice chemistry with Yen as his reserved (but interested) colleague, Ms. Liang.
Kam keeps everything moving along quite spritely. He also happens to be a rather encouraging case of a plugger who made good. After decades of A.D. work, including on the first two Ip Man films, Kam has now directed four big, commercial films in just three years, including the entertainingly old school Colour of the Game. In this case, he manages to balance the action and high school drama to satisfy Yen’s followers and those attracted by the youthful supporting players. Recommended with dopey affection for fans of Yen and HK cinema, Big Brother opens this Friday (8/31) in New York, at the AMC Empire.