Surely there’s been a certain longing for the kind of action film that cinephiles today haven’t seen in a while. Kam Ka-Wai’s Big Brother delves wholly into that very genre that Westerners like myself grew up on with underdog education dramas like Lean On Me and Stand And Deliver, to more kinetic flicks like The Substitute, The Principal and Coach Carter to name a few (yes, I even grew up with Class Of 1999 too, but this is not that kind of movie, so shut up).
Actor and action superstar Donnie Yen tackles the narrative in fitting fashion as Henry Chan, a battle-worn journeyman who has grown from beleagured, troublemaking juvenille to a self-disciplined man of honor and self-awareness. Resigned to becoming a first-time liberal studies teacher at his former stomping grounds, Tak Chi Secondary School, breaking his students in proves no immediately easy feat to accomplish. As an alternative to more conventional methods of introduction, cordiality, coupled with a wealth of knowledge and often quick thinking prove handy when setting the tone properly and letting his students know who’s really in charge. Nonetheless, being able to control what happens outside his class proves to be a different story, imploring him to look into his students and their background files.
Central to Chan’s teaching impetus in Big Brother are the lives of five teens: Gordon (Gordon Lau) – a music-driven Hong Kong-born Pakistani who is no stranger to the intolerance of his peers, Gladys (Gladys Li) – a car-loving tomboy whose shorthair is a coping mechanism for the patriarchy in her family, Bruce and Chris (Bruce Tong and Chris Tong) – twins abandoned by their mother at childhood and now often left to their own devices thanks in part to their father’s alcoholic depression and stupor ever since, and Jack (Jack Lok) – a part-time waiter with a crush on the smartest girl in school and the will to keep his tenaciously-working grandmother (Li Fung) happy no matter how many teachers’ feedback notes he has to forge.
In grassroots fashion, Chan goes from family-to-family to intervene and mediate as much as possible, both monetarily and diplomatically. When he reaches Jack’s grandmother and picks up on his whereabouts, it’s only a matter of time before having to face off with an MMA champion (Jess Liaudin), and his entourage full of meatheads on the eve of a major marquee match-up to rescue Jack from captivity at the hands of Kane Luo (Yu Kang), a local gangster who manages an MMA and boxing gym as a front for his criminal operation.
Things soon wind down to an ultimatum that initally puts even more pressure Chan than before; Tak Chi is in the midst of a budget crisis and due to its low turn out of graduates and university acceptances, the school’s prospects are becoming more dim by the day with land developers looking to demolish Tak Chi and move in and build luxury homes in its place. What complicates things slightly more in the wake of Chan’s fighting is his unforeseen celebrity status in tabloid media and the presence of superiors more concerned with public image than with Chan’s hard-earned and forged bond with his students.
The film’s underlying drama also sees Chan flourishing a closer bond from time to time with collague Ms. Liang (Joe Chen), along with flashbacks spotlighting his rousing younger teen years as a skilled fighter to his more reflective time as a marine; Disincentivized by the trauma and tragedy of war, he forges a nomadic path in the North to find himself again, a quest that ultimately brings him full circle back to Tak Chi.
Chan Tai-Lee’s script embarks on a story that cosigns inclusiveness with its narrative on education. Stock footage of photo-ops students play in montage form, scored to the acoustic air of recording artists James Blunt and Lukas Graham.
Bookending the main arc that essentially makes this the kind of Donnie Yen film that appeals to his fanbase is what culminates Chan’s current contention with Kane who has a major bone to pick with the newcome teacher. To this end, martial arts fans will find something special in young actor Liu Qiunan whose starring role 2016 action flick, Kung Fu Boys, should get a slightly bigger profile this time around.
Yen reconvenes with fellow action and stunt cohort, action director Kenji Tanigaki (Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, Ajin: Demi Human) whose team of Japanese stunties embodied the cinematic fight action that takes place. Kawamoto Koji’s fight choreography gets a favorable spotlight midway in the film as Yen is swept into a ballistic brawlfest packed of bodyslams, uppercuts, suplexes and crashing guillotines to encompass the locker room destruction.
The fightfare swells back up in full force with Yen making things fun for his students with a brief lesson in self-defense. Yen’s reunion with Yu in the years since Dragon Tiger Gate (2006) and Flash Point (2007) serve as a delightful pay off with both actors throwing down in another of what fans will likely dispute over a list in ‘Bests’ of Donnie Yen kitchen sink-level fight scenes. It kind of makes you wish what the heck Wong Jing was thinking when making My Schoolmate, The Barbarian (2001), because that film has not aged well.
What does so, however, is Big Brother in all its delivery as a coming-of-age education drama with a sportive, often subversive and forthright message that packs as much punch, kick and BJJ as one can enjoy. You can try finding a few faults with Big Brother, but you’ll already be drawn into its emotive stride before long. It speaks to Kam’s ability here as a filmmaker next to Yen’s appeal as a fan favorite to many following his prolific spout in fame in the past two years between Ip Man 3 and a tentative return to Hollywood in xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage.
More importantly, the film doesn’t treat the students as a secondhand fixture. The steady balance between Yen’s starpower and the screentime of his younger key co-stars fare healthily for the film’s runtime, invoking good acting and a vast breadth and scope that makes watching Big Brother all the more enjoyable. It certainly doesn’t feel cheap by any means and on that note, this is especially important to consider since fanboys are more often keen on just skipping to the fight scenes in these films, which is, in a word, stupid. That sort of thing will only take away the value of what this film offers, and apart from a good few escapist hours, I think it offers something special.