You’d have to have a heart made of absolute granite not to be moved by Distinction, the first solo feature by Hong Kong agitator Jevons Au, regardless of its emotional manipulations and unapologetic earnestness. Following his politically charged contributions to Trivisa and that “virus of the mind,” Ten Years, Au sets his sights on a different kind of pressing social issue in Hong Kong, that being its continued willingness to stick its head in the sand when it comes to disabilities and its punishing — in every sense of the word — education system.
This is a film by Hongkongers for Hongkongers, and anyone unfamiliar with the subtleties of family shame and the ferocious academic competition that starts at 13 and can literally end in suicide may look at the whole affair as histrionic, though ultimately it rings true. Au’s social drama is only a stone’s throw from being a Very Special Episode or a movie of the week, and it would be irritating if it weren’t so sincere — and, in the end, hopeful. Sadly, it’s probably required viewing in Hong Kong. Despite the home audience being whom Distinction is for, and who will see it at the Kids International Film festival after its June world premiere in Taipei, the film could easily find a life in Asia, where the recognizable subject matter and themes will resonate. A zeitgeist of inclusion (in markets where the same problems are far from “solved”) should lead socially minded festivals and kids’ events to take note.
The pic uses three characters to symbolize the most basic of struggles encountered by the special education needs kids at the heart of the story: Grace Chui (Jo Koo) is a teacher at a SEN school who is trying to be part of the solution; Ka-ho (Kaki Sham) is a rebellious Band 3 high school (which is not good) student whose intolerance and impatience are part of the problem; and Zoey (Jennifer Yu) is a “good” girl from an elite Band 1 school who is aggressively indifferent. Distinction’s narrative is simple. As Grace struggles to complete the year-ending school musical, Ka-ho and Zoey strike up an unlikely friendship through his brother Ka-long (utterly charming non-pro Tse Ka-long, who almost walks away with the film), a student in Grace’s class. Zoey agrees to help with the show for the kind of extracurricular credit that looks good on prestige university applications; Ka-ho is given the choice of helping out or expulsion.
Anyone who has ever seen an inspiring tale about our better angels will recognize where Distinction is headed by the 20-minute mark, especially after the opening sequence involving an autistic boy who is upset over his disrupted routine, his frazzled mother trying to get through to him and the ambulance chasers who think the whole thing is “hilarious” enough to justify whipping out their phones. But Au and co-writers Ashley Cheung and Chung Chuiyi have more on their minds than simply the plight of the mentally challenged, and all credit to them for admitting the frequently un-admitted. That said, plenty of the characters are drawn as archetypes, among them mercenary hustlers using children who don’t understand their actions as pack mules for black market tech, insufferable school girls every bit as vapid as they are privileged, saintly parents who silently bear the burden of special-needs children, a Mommie Dearest and an inspiring teacher.
Au has quickly proven himself a keen observer of human nature, less a technician and more an emotional storyteller, and it serves him well here. His most obvious targets are the people and institutions that are failing kids with mental handicaps, but he’s just as interested in turning his camera on the attitudes and institutions that are stifling so-called normal kids, and failing them in other ways. The B- and C-plots focus on Zoey and her relationship with her grandfather (Chung King-fai), who encourages her artistic streak much to the chagrin of her mother (veteran Cecilia Yip). Zoey is repeatedly punished for thinking outside the box, and it’s quite heartbreaking (and infuriating) to see her abandon her creative side because of an arbitrary standard for scholastic excellence. Ka-long’s family appears to be more concerned with their public image than about a useful education for him, but his mother’s (Rain Lau) zeal to get him into a “normal” school comes from a place of affection; she just wants what’s best for her son, which she perceives as that arbitrary standard.
Most compelling is Grace and her nearly crippling fear of getting pregnant, a fear rooted in the idea she could easily have a child like the ones she teaches. Unsavory as it may be to admit, it’s entirely human, and the little details and universal truths Au lines the script with raise it above treacly tearjerker into bittersweet consciousness-raising. Make no mistake: Au has a message to deliver, too. The title in the original Cantonese translates roughly to “extraordinary.”
Distinction has strong castmembers working for it, each of whom contribute to making the rapid revelations less jarring than they really are — Ka-ho’s sudden appreciation of his little brother feels particularly left-field — and Koo stands out as a woman wrestling with the overlap of the professional and the personal. A handful of emerging actors and indie favorites (Fish Liew, Yau Hok-sau, Joman Chiang) show up in small roles to raise the film’s profile. What was likely a fairly modest budget means Au sticks to basics technically, though anything flashy would detract from the pic’s essential humanism.
Production company: 109G Studio
Cast: Jo Koo, Jennifer Yu, Kaki Sham, Chung King-fai, Stephen Au, Cecilia Yip, Rain Lau, Dominic Lam, KK Cheung
Director: Jevons Au
Screenwriter: Jevons Au, Ashley Cheung, Chung Chuiyi
Producer: Winnie Tsang, Catherine Wong
Executive producer: Mason Wu
Director of photography: Zhang Ying
Production designer: Chan Miu-Ling
Costume designer: Una Wang
Editor: Emily Leung
Music: Charles Lau, Martin Lai
World sales: Golden Scene