Director: Ka-Wai Kam
Writer: Tai-lee Chan
Starring: Donnie Yen, Joe Chen, Kang Yu, Jack Lok, Gordon Lau, Gladys Li, Chris Guan, Bruce Guan
Didn’t know teaching is so dangerous nowadays.
Watching Big Brother reminded me of another movie, and I mean that as a compliment. Kindergarten Cop was a weird divergence for Arnold Schwarzenegger when it was released in 1990, but it was a success. There are a few other films that this movie reminds me of — mostly from the “badass cleans up a failing high school” genre like Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds — but I kept coming back to Kindergarten Cop.
A lot of that had to do with Donnie Yen.
Few people have the pure presence and charisma that Schwarzenegger has, but Donnie Yen comes close. Knowing him predominantly from action movies made it surprisingly interesting to see his character, Henry Chen, played straight for a while. He’s a teacher. He’s new to the class and almost instantly ingratiates himself to them by engaging their interests and using that to make them learn. He also foils a few hazing pranks, so they know he’s not messing around.
Mr. Chen spends the entire first half of Big Brother trying to improve the lives of his students. That’s the main focus. He focuses his time on either getting them to engage in class or getting to know them. He then takes it upon himself to try to improve their circumstances and show them that their circumstances actually can improve.
It’s heartwarming stuff. Scored to a lot of James Blunt and Lukas Graham, Mr. Chen sets about inserting himself into his student’s lives. The most dramatic and most effective storyline is with the twins, Chris and Bruce (Chris and Bruce Guan). Chris wants to be a professional gamer, and Bruce is overcoming a learning disability, and both of them are dealing with an alcoholic father.
The storyline involving Gladys (Gladys Li) is the most fun. She’s a tomboy with a sexist dad, but she wants to be a racecar driver, and Mr. Chen helps her prove herself to her father in a very fun and silly scene. Gordon’s (Gordon Lau) story is probably given the least screen-time. He wants to be a famous pop star, but he’s discriminated against due to his Pakistani heritage. It’s hard for Mr. Chen to solve racism on top of everything else, but he does manage to make Gordon feel more comfortable performing in his own skin.
I found myself getting so invested in the goofy melodrama of the classroom that I completely forgot we’d even get fight scenes. Luckily, when they do happen, they’re great. The storyline that brings us that action belongs to Jack (Jack Lok), a poor kid who cares for his grandmother and makes money by helping a local mobster. When Mr. Chen enters Jack’s story to help him out, we wind up with an exciting fight in a locker room before an MMA fight. Lockers are toppled, and showers are burst through. Donnie Yen is great at what he does, and the quick-cutting and editing in a lot of the school drama storylines slow down a bit to let us appreciate what a master can do.
We get some nice background on Mr. Chen, both his life at school and what he did after. He paints a fuller picture of why this man is like he is and how he can do what he does. Mr. Chen is clearly a larger-than-life character, but the flashbacks help to ground him a bit.
There’s a final big fight scene at the end that had me smiling the entire time. Donnie Yen gets to show off some more, and we get to see our central location taken complete advantage of. The main villain–the mobster that Jack worked for–is like a spectre of all the students that teachers were never able to reach, and they play that up visually to great effect. There’s a lot of great visual touches in the film that deepen some things, like class struggle and otherism, and it’s nice that they didn’t overexplain all of the themes.
Overall, I really enjoyed Big Brother. If people go into it expecting a wall-to-wall action extravaganza they may be disappointed, but … hell, that’s what I expected, and I still came out of it impressed. If you don’t mind your action movies also being corny, teacher-student dramas, or vice versa, then this could be the film for you. It’s also just a great showcase for Donnie Yen’s charm, athleticism, and effortless style. It’s absolutely worth your time.