Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Ark of Mr. Chow

Both seeing and writing about this movie took time that probably should be going into packing up the house for next week's move, but "guy who worked on Starry Starry Night" grabbed my eye, the description of it looked entertaining, and I wanted to get out of the house.

Not really worth it, especially since it didn't feel nearly as satirical as every description suggested. I do wonder, as I often do when seeing movies coming from China, if I am missing a little bit. There's a bit of back-and-forth about how looking for elites is contrary to something that I suspect means a bit more in the film's native land.

Oddly, no previews for other Chinese movies before it in a very sparse screening (admittedly, 5pm isn't exactly niche presentations' busy time), which is quite a change after a run of having one import after another every couple weeks for the first few months of 2015. I'm curious about what's up with that - are the likes of China Lion gun-shy about competing with the American blockbusters, is a generally quiet period over there, or are the Chinese studios also releasing big action pictures that, instead of getting a day-and-date release, will hold out for a bigger distribution deal in North America?

Shao Nian Ban (The Ark of Mr. Chow)

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2015 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, DCP)

The likely-studio-supplied boilerplate that has shown up in a lot of listings about The Ark of Mr. Chow describes it as a satirical look at the Chinese "Youth Class" system, and if it's what passes for satire in China, well, it's a tremendous disappointment to all of us who ever heard that the Chinese symbol for "satire" is "laughter with knives". That's probably not quite true anyway, but even the loosest definition of satire would seem to demand something more barbed - or at least funnier - than what Yang Xiao comes up with here.

The "Youth Class" was a program begun in the People's Republic of China in 1978, aiming to place the best and brightest children of fifteen (or younger) in college. Twenty years later, Chow Zhiyong (Sun Honglei) is recruiting a new class for the school where he teaches, ignoring the communications asking him to stop. We meet five - Fung Ho-cheung (Li Jiaqi), an eleven-year-old prodigy; Mike (Wang Yuexin), a delinquent drop-out working in a nursing home; Dafa (Liu Xilong), an eccentric from the provinces; Cho Lan (Zhou Dongyu), a reserved girl with a crush on Mike; and Way (Dong Zijian), a rather average-seeming boy who has been pushed to the head of the class by his ambitious mother. At school, the boys quickly develop a crush on dance student Elaine (Cici Wang), although Chow would greatly prefer they concentrate their attention on International Mathematical Competition.

Director and co-writer Yang Xiao was in a Youth Class himself, back in 1994, so he comes at the subject with first-hand experience, and in some ways, that appears to limit his perspective as much as inform it: While Way is the narrator, meaning we inevitably see the film from his point of view (which includes staying in a dorm with Fung, Mike, and Dafa), it's still somewhat surprising just how much of a cipher Lan is compared to her male classmates. The opening segment where the audience is introduced to the various students and see some of their background skips right over her, and we only get brief hints at her personality. It's fair that a film mostly focusing on brilliant boys out of their league focus on that, perhaps - Cici Wang's Elaine is similarly vague as a hormone-charging woman in red - but it feels like it's doing gifted young women an injustice.

Full review on EFC.

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