Movie Review: Distinction (非同凡響)

Jevons Au (歐文傑), the director of TEN YEARS, the highly provocative film that got him blacklisted in the mainland, is back with a new film that while being far less controversial, it still focuses on one of our city’s social problems.

Grace (actress and singer Jo Koo/谷袓林) is a SEN teacher in Hong Kong. It’s far from being an easy job as her students need a lot of handholding and, quite often, so do their parents who have either thrown in the towel long ago or refuse to accept their child’s limitations. The end of the school year is coming up and she’s decided to mount a musical production where the kids can show off their abilities, rather than their disabilities. To help her, a group of high school girls from the nearby Band 1 (elite) school offer their support so that it will look good on their university applications but, with the exception of one girl, Zoey (Jennifer Yu/余香凝, MEN ON THE DRAGON), they quickly lose interest and fall away. Zoey, however, marches to the beat of a different drum. A talented and creative artist, her work is unfortunately demeaned by both her art teacher and her helicopter mother, who would rather have her be like everyone else in the class than encourage her to think outside the box. (This is one of the big problems with our schools here, a situation that far too often results in suicide.) Grace also gets support from an enlightened colleague at a nearby Band 3 school who, in turn, recruits Ka-ho (Kaki Sham/岑珈其, WEEDS ON FIRE) to the cause. Ka-ho is on the fast track to nowhere (another problem with our local schools, particularly the Band 3 ones) and his teacher offers him a choice: Participate in this extra-curricular activity or get expelled from school. Rather surprisingly, Ka-ho finds his voice in the project, not only becoming the group’s official photographer but also discovering compassion for his younger brother Ka-long (amateur actor Tse Ka-long), who just so happens to be a student in Grace’s class.

At the risk of coming across as stone-hearted, I was really disappointed with this movie. I can appreciate Au’s attempt to shine a spotlight on our government’s – and our neighbours’, for that matter – hesitance to embrace inclusion but he and his co-writers Ashley Cheung and Chung Chuiyi have gone about it in a very superficial way by having cardboard cut-outs of characters who each suddenly has an epiphanic moment. It doesn’t work that way. Perhaps the most ridiculously written character is Grace. Of course, teachers experience crises of faith from time to time (who doesn’t?), but why does it take her eight years of marriage before she discusses the matter of having children with her husband? And her worry that she’ll give birth to a special needs child is not just irrational, it’s immature. She, of all people, should be better equipped to deal with it than anyone else.

On the plus side, young Ka-long is an absolute delight to watch. He’s the type of kid that you just want to hug and never let go. Being a special needs child himself, he may still be too young to understand the discrimination that he faces on a daily basis and it’s that earnestness that he instills in his character that makes him so loveable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that a film like this was made because it will hopefully spur on other young filmmakers to tackle the subject. When they do, I just hope they’ll dig deeper and create characters that aren’t so one-dimensional.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, October 11th at 8:30 am HK time!

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