Walk to School -- Film Review

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Bottom Line: A picturesque children's film that sidesteps genuine social issues.

SHANGHAI -- Stories about underprivileged pupils struggling to get an education is as much a staple in Chinese mainland children's films as chow mien on a Chinatown takeout menu. "Walk to School," co-directed by brothers Peng Jiahuang and Peng Cheng, stirs in the stock ingredients -- minority cherubs shining through abject poverty in some unspoiled Shangri-la. There's one novel element though: Even walking to school is a dream for these kids whose mode of transport makes bungee jumping as sedate as a merry-go-round.

The film competed for the Asia New Talent Award at Shanghai International Film Festival. This may open one or two doors to kidfests and knowledge channels seeking exotic stuff. Having the theme song rendered by Jackie Chan and action star Yu Rongguang attached as executive producer may boost public awareness domestically, but surfeit of "main rhythm" (a government endorsed theater category) tableaux could breed audience apathy.

The protagonists are siblings belonging to the Lisu tribe, which dwells in the heart of Yunnan's Gongshan Mountain. To attend the village school, elder sister Naxiang (Ana Muli) must dangle from a hook attached to a pulley cable and slide across the Nujiang Gorge. This is a real vehicle still used by some 400 people there, also featured in Jacob Cheung's "Ticket."

Wawa (Ding Jiali) is deemed too young and forbidden to join her. Yet so desperate is his desire for knowledge he secretly does it anyway so he can eavesdrop on Naxiang's lessons. His antics provide some amusing episodes at first, but they have serious consequences.

Taiwan cinematographer Li Yixu's showcases the breathtaking local landscape to pleasing effect. The scenes of protagonists suspended between steep ravines, with the raging river under their feet are by turns hair-raising and visually stunning. The directors also balance tension with humor by juxtaposing Naxiang's matter-of-fact ease with the hysterical reactions of the doctor and new schoolteacher (Cao Xiwen) when they take their virgin ride.

The two Bambi-eyed young leads are natural and vivacious, displaying credible sibling affection that imparts a playful, joyous vibe. The storyline regrettably takes a disastrous dip in the second half, when it simply wallows in heavy-handed melodrama and child psychology.

Being a "main rhythm" film puts the "Walk" into a catch 22 situation. On the one hand, it tries to rally audience concern by highlighting the protagonists' miserable plight. On the other hand, it stops short of exposing any fallacies in the system, and instead drowns their problems in a jingoistic ending glorifying public roadwork.

Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival
Sales and production: New Classic Advertising Production Company, Yunnan Runshi & Rongguang Movie Production Ltd Company
Cast: Ding Jiali, Ana Muli, Cao Xiwen, Chen Yifei
Director: Peng Jiahuang, Peng Chen
Screenwriter: Peng Cheng
Producer: Jiang Xiaorong
Executive producer: Jiang Xiaorong, Ru Rongguang
Director of photography: Li Yixu
Art director: Li Yongping
Music: Ruan Kunshen
Costume designer: Wang Guangqun
Editor: Zhou Ying
No rating, 85 minutes
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