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Little Big Master

Little Big Master

Miriam Yeung and her pupils in Little Big Master.

Chinese: 五個小孩的校長  
Year: 2015
Director: Adrian Kwan Shun-Fai
Producer: Benny Chan Muk-Sing, Alvin Lam, Stanley Tong Man-Hong
Writer: Adrian Kwan Shun-Fai, Hannah Chan

Miriam Yeung Chin-Wah, Louis Koo Tin-Lok, Winnie Ho Yuen-Ying, Fu Shun-Ying, Keira Wang, Zaha Fathima, Khan Nayab, Richard Ng Yiu-Hon, Anna Ng Yuen-Yee, Philip Keung Ho-Man, Rain Lau Yuk-Tsui, Asnani Mena, Dhillon Harjit Singh, Stanley Fung Shui-Fan, Marc Ma, Fire Lee, Bonnie Wong Man-Wai, Alannah Ong, Sammy, Mimi Kung Tse-Yan, Stephen Au Kam-Tong, Don Li Yat-Long, Ha Yu, Tsui Chi-Hung

The Skinny:

Little Big Master rides its real-life hook and solid cast to audience-pleasing effect, though cynical audiences may get annoyed at how overdone and mawkish its emotions are. A positive and life-affirming film that's great for families – and that may be all some audiences require.

by Kozo:

If you refuse to buy into the life-affirming message of Little Big Master then you’re an absolute monster. This is a drama about a noble woman who operates a failing kindergarten despite low pay and poor health, and yet goes on to become an inspiration to many. Miriam Yeung stars as Lui Wai-Hung, a principal at a highly-ranked kindergarten who tries to hold back an overwhelmed student. However, her decision is overturned by ladder-climbing “dragon parents” who wish to see their child put on the most prestigious path regardless of the child’s well-being. Frustrated and fed up, Lui quits her job. The commercialization of childhood education is a growing concern in Hong Kong, so Lui’s disillusionment absolutely rings true. Her next move, to become the headmistress of the failing Yeung Tin Kindergarten in Yuen Long for only HK$4500 (about US$580) a month also rings true because, well, the movie was based on a true story. So if you don’t like this film, you’re dismissing the trials of a real noble woman. Your guilt should consume you.

Little Big Master arrives courtesy of Adrian Kwan, the filmmaker who turned the Christian film The Miracle Box into a solid box office hit. Kwan also made 6 AM and A Dream Team so he’s not exactly a consistent filmmaker. No matter: With Little Big Master, Kwan delivers a pleasing family film filled with earnest if overbearing hope. The movie follows Lui as she takes over a meager student body of five at Yeung Tin Kindergarten while encountering resistance from all sides, not to mention a few personal issues. She’s initially supported by her husband Dong (Louis Koo), but her increasing dedication to the school causes marital friction. Dong builds exhibits for a museum and his latest project is a 1:1 scale replica of a guillotine. With fancy-schmancy tech exhibits gaining ground on his practical work, Dong could use Lui’s support in his quest to build European execution devices. These details may sound ridiculous, but the real Lui Wai-Hung’s husband actually was building a guillotine while she was toiling away at Yeung Tin Kindergarten. Wow. Stranger than fiction and all that.

The rest of Lui’s story requires less suspension of disbelief. Besides dealing with a health issue and growing media attention on her activities, Lui strives to earn the trust of her five students and their families. Consisting of three Chinese girls and a pair of Pakistani sisters, Lui’s students are a diverse bunch and it’s genuinely enjoyable to watch Lui become a part of their everyday lives. Likewise, it’s engaging to see her deal with the kids’ parents, as she helps each family out in some small way. Unfortunately, there’s a downside to these encounters. Each meeting resolves itself rather quickly with an emotional crescendo; Lui senses problems with one girl, visits the family, nudges them to deal with their problems, gets tears to flow, and then repeats the cycle with the next girl. It’s a narrative formula that’s predictable and more than a little mawkish. The scenes do touch upon different Hong Kong social issues, and are frequently quite touching, but the parade of emotional climaxes gets monotonous.

Helping to compensate for the thickly-applied emotions are the actors, who turn in effective performances. As Lui Wai-Hung, Miriam Yeung is perfectly cast. Yeung brings warm presence and multiple layers to the role, and never once makes us doubt that she’s anything but the determined and principled woman she’s playing. It’s a surprising performance in part because the character lacks any real edge – Lui is just a decent, admirable person and Yeung handily convinces. The supporting cast consists of veterans and character actors who acquit themselves well, either with venerable presence (Richard Ng, Stanley Fung, Anna Ng) or rakish charisma (Keung Ho-Man, Sammy). Louis Koo provides unobtrusive support though he does get to exercise his propensity for tortured overacting. The feels would be fewer without the child actors, who exude innocence and are adorable and watchable. The culturally-diverse depiction of Hong Kong is also a plus, though pointing out the diversity is kind of redundant because it merely reflects real life. Basically, we’re giving the filmmakers points for telling the truth.

Little Big Master could have addressed media, politics or more complex social issues, but it chooses not to, and instead trots out tropes like the evils of cashing out (Lui can quit Yeung Tin for a lucrative tutoring gig) or the warm fuzzies of universal acceptance (the girls play happily in the park with special needs kids). The film’s ultimate tension – if the school can stay open beyond the current term – is dependent on Lui recruiting more students, with the climax involving an open house event that, despite being sparsely attended, moves the entire neighborhood to tears because it’s just so damn touching. Which it is, but the strings are so obvious that one might feel compelled to swipe at the puppets just to get at the puppeteer. Little Big Master isn’t good filmmaking, as it’s too unabashed in its sentiment and technique to be anything more than that. It is, however, good advocacy, and has strong value to Hong Kongers and indeed anyone who enjoys an engaging and positive family film. That it actually happened only makes it more so. (Kozo, 6/2015)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Universe Laser (HK)
2-Disc Edition
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also available on Blu-ray Disc
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