'Little Big Master' ('Ng Gor Siu Haai Dik Haau Cheung'): Hong Kong/Filmart Review

Courtesy of Universe Films Distribution
Understated adult thesps and natural child stars headline tearjerking melodrama.  

Hong Kong stars Miriam Yeung and Louis Koo lead an engaging cast in an against-the-odds drama revolving around a run-down village school.

Revolving around the much-celebrated case of an educationalist taking up a 580-dollar-a-month job rejuvenating a decaying village school in Hong Kong, Adrian Kwan's latest film is an unflinching melodrama with an unambiguous faith in the goodness of humankind. Boasting an abundance of Kleenex-worthy moments, Little Big Master is an optimism-fueled film reliant more on sentimental brushstrokes than sharp social critique in presenting and understanding the tragedy and joy on screen.

What's beyond debate here is the sincerity of the filmmaker. Rivaling his real-life protagonist's empathy and ability to tease the best out of her charges, Kwan has delivered an effective and affecting tribute to the wonders of pedagogy. His two leads' suitably understated performances are nicely offset by the child actors' intensity. Little Big Master is bound for family-friendly domestic success amid ongoing contemplation about Hong Kong's roots and values. The presence of the classic late 1970s toddler ditty Little Sun and 1980s pop icon Danny Chan's legendary hit Applause  will undoubtedly stir up nostalgia among the city's parent-age viewers too.

While a bit too plain, non-stylized and edge-free for export - The Class and The Kindergarten Teacher this is certainly not - exposure in children-oriented programs is feasible, probably with a post-release afterlife as airline entertainment beyond Chinese-speaking regions. 

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Continuing her recent turn toward more mature, earthier screen roles - as in last year's Hong Kong International Film Festival opener Aberdeen - singer-actor Miriam Yeung plays Lui Lai-hung, a headmistress dismayed by the pressure her prestigious school has put on her pupils.

Quitting her job, she pledges to take a break while preparing to go on a round-the-world vacation with her equally troubled-at-work museum curator husband Dong (Louis Koo). Soon bored out of her mind, Lui jumps back into action by accepting a low-paid job as headmistress-teacher-janitor of a small village kindergarten facing forced closure in four months' time.

What follows is nearly inevitable, as Lui tries her utmost to care for the girls and win over their skeptical - and struggling - custodians. And the kids are not alright: Siu-suet (Winnie Ho) sells scrap metal, cooks and does household chores to take care of her ailing father (Richard Ng); Chu-chu (Keira Wang) lives with her dish-washer aunt (Anna Ng) after her parents died in a car crash; Ka-ka (Fu Shun-ying) is forced to witness disputes at home between her disabled father (Philip Keung) and mother (Jade Lau), and suffers constant intimidation from local bullies; Kitty (Zaha Fathima) and Jennie (Khan Nayab), siblings of Pakistani ancestry, have to contend with their father's disapproval of girls receiving schooling in the first place.

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Yeung's deft and touching turn as the beleaguered but odds-defying headmistress is nearly overshadowed by her toddler co-stars. Largely devoid of the artifice and affect found in the army of pampered and drilled child actors of the day, Kwan's kids are natural and engaging.

Anthony Pun's camerawork and Curran Pang's precise editing help get the best out of their raw performances, with the film's heart-rending finale, one pupil's emotionally crushing speech, captured in a harrowing long take. 

Production companies: Sirius Film International in a Universe Entertainment, Sil-Metropole Organization, Sun Entertainment Culture, One Cool Film, Beijing Monster Film presentation

Cast: Miriam Yeung, Louis Koo, Winnie Ho, Fu Shun-ying, Keira Wang, Zaha Fathima, Khayib Khan

Director: Adrian Kwan

Screenwriters: Adrian Kwan, Hannah Chang

Producers: Benny Chan, Alvin Lam, Stanley Tong

Executive producer: Daneil Lam, Chen Yiqi, Chow Cheok-wah, Liang Yi

Director of photography: Anthony Pun

Art director: Renee Wang

Costume designer: Joyce Chan

Editor: Curran Pang

Casting Manager: Fung Pui-kwan

Music: Wong Kin-wai

International Sales: Universe Film Distribution