I'm trying to figure out how to not fall behind so much next year - heck, how I'll climb out of the hole I'm in right now in terms of updating this thing - and part of it is "maybe I won't see every Chinese movie that plays Boston, and maybe I won't write about everything I see that doesn't have a review on EFC." Planning on starting right away, because this didn't look like a must-see, but the schedule worked out, and then it was interesting, dang it.
To start out with, it is a lot more satiric than you see with a lot of Chinese movies. It's kind of boring to talk about censorship every time a movie from mainland China is not just entirely lightweight, but it's notable, especially when I see how much more direct this movie becomes when it starts to be about the treatment of women rather than just bureaucracy. It's the sort of thing that might have more present-day relevance, but I wonder if doing it as a period piece set before the People's Republic gave them some wiggle room.
The real surprise, though, was when the movie hit me with a title card saying what happened to a character afterward; I'd never given any consideration to this possibly being a true story, but then there were photos, and there you go. It's been a while since I can recall something that could go for "based on a true story" not doing so, and it made me wonder if that was responsible for how the story sometimes didn't work - it was trying to stay true to what happened, and real life is seldom as streamlined, with everything building around one thing. I think there's a little room for adaptation here, but it would explain a lot.
* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2016 in AMC Boston Common #17 (first-run, DCP)
Describe the plot of Mr. Donkey, in which the faculty of a small rural school pretends that their donkey is a teacher in order to increase their meager budget only to run afoul of an insistent bureaucrat, and it doesn't sound like much other than a hard sell. Once it starts to play out, though, it actually becomes something as fascinating as it is funny, even if it does stumble a bit toward the end.
The school in question is out in the desert, built out of a one-time Rain God Temple, serving a number of small villages, although enrollment is dropping every semester. Principal Sun Henghai (Da Li) is dedicated, and he has three teachers on faculty - his former student Zhou Tienan (Liu Shualiang), free spirit Zhang Yiman (Ren Suxi), and her would-be lover Pei Kuishan. Sun's daughter Jia (Bu Guanjin) tends Dashei, the donkey they use to fetch necessary water, and whose teacher's salary from the government helps pay for incidentals. Unfortunately, the government is sending Commissioner Lee (Han Yanbo) to investigate the entire faculty, and the only person available to fill in as "Lyu Dashei" is a hick coppersmith (A Runa) who barely speaks Mandarin, let along the fluent English he's supposed to be teaching.
Filmmakers Liu Lu and Zhou Shen, adapting their own play, maybe seem like they miss an opportunity or two at first, starting things off with a lot of potentially funny things having already happened - the initial decision to put the donkey on the payroll, an apparently-abortive tryst between Yiman and Kuishan, Tienan having a crush on Jia, a couple other times they had to explain the lack of a fifth teacher. On the other hand, they take advantage of not needing to have people look ridiculous from the outset to be able to set up a bunch of cascading, funny gags, with the teachers able to do a lot of funny, casual back-and-forth before things expand to include the coppersmith and the commissioner. Liu & Zhou are kind enough not to use this to hide things, but instead smoothly drop the information that the audience will need to appreciate the next gag in so that it doesn't feel like the audience is coming in late.
Full review on EFC.