Throughout the years, there have been many examples of the ‘teacher making a difference’ genre. Ranging from the great successes (Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds) to the forgettable (Cadence, Finding Forrestor), the story of a teacher fighting for the lives of the underprivileged is an oft-repeated narrative that is often powerful (but also risks falling into predictability). Thankfully, Big Brotherfalls into the former category, proving to be both fun and exciting.
Directed by Kam Ka-Wai (Colour of the Game), Big Brother tells the story of Mr. Chen (Donnie Yen), a former soldier who accepts the challenge of teaching a class of teen delinquents. Recognizing that the soul of the students is what is most broken, Chen begins to teach both their minds and their hearts. As he builds relationships with their families and the other staff, it soon becomes clear that his unconventional teaching style may have the potential to change the lives of everyone around him.
Rather than simply devolve into a martial arts epic, the film does an excellent job of balancing its tones between high-quality action and engaging character development. As the mysterious but lovable Mr. Chen, martial arts legend Donnie Yen (Ip Man, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) has ample opportunity to show off both his martial arts prowess and his comedic skills. What’s more, after having worked with Yen as 2ndAssistant Director on the famed Ip Mantrilogy, Kam has a good understanding of his actor’s strengths and allows him to flourish as his lead.
One of the most surprising aspects of the film is its social conscience. While Chen engages his students intellectually, what truly sets him apart is his interest in challenging cultural ideals. Instead of simply telling the students to ‘study harder’, his greatest concern is that the students become their best selves. From the outset, Chen’s methods threaten the cultural drive for success above all else. Instead, Chen becomes interested in the lives of the students and their families in a way that views the teens holistically, encouraging emotional healing and intellectual questions. If the students struggle with their confidence, he encourages them to follow their dreams. If the students are failing, he speaks to the parents, not to pressure them to succeed but rather to listen to their children and do what’s best for them. In fact, after one moment of tragedy calls his credentials into question, his greatest question for the school board is to ask how they can challenge the education system itself so as to prevent an event like this from happening again. To Chen, the soul of the student is as vital as the final grade—and it changes the lives of the families under his influence.
In the end, Big Brother proves its worth through its desire to balance its tone and visuals. As an action vehicle, Yen is allowed to shine at appropriate moments. However, the soul of the film remains Chen’s view that success is more than a letter grade.
Big Brother is currently available on 4K, Blu-ray and VOD.