Real life can be a crushing, soul-sucking experience. Even in the best of circumstances, hardships can come from anywhere, putting the best and worst of us all on equal footing in an uncertain word. As cynicism becomes status quo, reminders of goodness, of redemption, are often exactly what we need to inspire hope, to be reminded that our pain is lessened when shared, that we are not alone to endure it. So while there’s a place for grim-dark stories to offer catharsis, there is also room for stories like director Kam Ka Wai’s Big Brother, coming available on home video May 21st. Here, through the efforts of a single teacher, a small group of troubled students are reminded of their worth and a school at large is reminded of what matters. If audiences are going to seek out stories to help them bear reality, why not partake in something which might elicit ambition to drive out the darkness.
Former US Marine Henry Chen (Donnie Yen) never trained to become a teacher, yet he applies to become one at the Tak Chi Secondary School, specifically to teach liberal studies to the most unruly of students. The students in room F. 6B don’t expect to go to university, so school’s not a priority, and, for most, just gets in the way of their financial pursuits. It’s not until Mr. Chen starts speaking to who they are, not who people think they are, that the classroom starts to pay attention. However, with the school planning to cut funding and a local businessman wanting to purchase the school’s property for luxury apartments, hope for the future seems bleak. With the pressure on, it’s not a question of whether Mr. Chen’s unorthodox approach can help these kids, but whether he’s too late.
To help get in the mindset of what to expect, view Big Brother as an amalgamation of three films: Dangerous Minds (1995), The Substitute (1996), and Lean on Me (1986). Each film involves teachers taking on at-risk kids and throwing out the rulebook to get through to them. Chan Tai Lee’s script, intentionally or not, utilizes aspects of each in order to create a story which feels dynamic and enables the earnestness to remain a focus while instilling a bit of danger to allow Yen to kick a little butt. Despite what the trailers suggest, this is not an action-focused film. There are three major stunt sequences featuring Yen, each of which unique and crafted for both maximum entertainment and emotional payoff, and the rest is character-driven drama. This aspect is where Big Brother draws the most strength and is the most evocative particularly because the film focuses on five students in the class, of whom Mr. Chen takes specific interest. Yen’s natural personability pores out of Chen, so whether his self-introduction goes horribly wrong, or he’s tracking down students individually, or he’s engaging their families, it’s never construed as manipulative or inauthentic. From here, Chen’s aura of charm and hope extends into the students and the school administration. For those open to it, the constant optimism within Big Brother never dulls or bores, but it may just fill your heart with joy.
Though Big Brother is Kam’s fourth feature film as director, he’s been either second unit or assistant director on multiple films since 2008, including Yen films Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010). From watching Big Brother, Kam’s skill and confidence is plainly evident whether in large stunt sequences or quieter character-focused moments. One sequence teased in the trailer involves student Gladys Wong (Gladys Li) racing in a go-kart. As in the fight sequences, it doesn’t matter what is happening if the audience can’t track it. Kam clearly understands this as he ensures the audience knows which racer is in which position all while maintaining focus. This makes the conclusion of the race personally and emotionally satisfying. In a less stunt-focused moment involving twins Chris and Bruce Kwan (Chris and Bruce Tong), as one brother gets ready for school and the other stays home to study, the rigidity of the camera denotes a rising tension that the typically purposefully fluid camerawork lacks. For those of you more interested in the fight sequences, Kam’s work on two of the Ip Man films should create confidence as each one is incredible to observe. Not only does Big Brother eschew wire-fighting for a more realistic presentation, but through each fight, the emotion within each one makes the characters more raw. Especially as Chan’s script slowly unfolds information about Chen and his connection to the school, the fights begin to make Chen feel less like a protective teacher, and more as a mentor who’s been on this path before.
Fans of Donnie Yen hoping to learn more about his involvement in the film or the process of making Big Brother, will be disappointed to learn that bonus features are virtually non-existent, which is a shame because clearly a lot went into making the film. Learning about the process of making the film or the intent behind it would go a long way for audiences to better understand the approach taken in the film. Instead of commentary, deleted scenes, or any kind of behind the scenes materials, three preview trailers for other WellGo USA releases – Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, Golden Job, and Triple Threat – and three trailers for Big Brother itself are all that come with the home release. So if you’re the type that enjoys a deep dive into your films, there’s nothing additional included to enhance the Big Brother experience.
Films are a world of refuge, yet they possess the capacity to inspire change. Sometimes it’s because the stories we indulge ourselves in present a version of ourselves and our world which we wish to become real. Though there’s much in Big Brother which is obviously over-played to incite a soft emotional reaction, the sincerity and idealism within it is difficult to ignore. This might be its greatest strength. It wants to imbue the audience with joy, to provide a happy ending, to let audiences know that it’s never too late to make amends, or start anew. When every day seems bleak, perhaps we can use a Big Brother to help see ourselves through.
Available on digital beginning April 16th, 2019.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning May 21st, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.