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Little Big Master
IMDB Rating: 7.5/10 from N/A votes
Release: 19 Mar 2015 /

Little Big Master

Genre: Drama
Director: Adrian Kwan,
Stars: , , ,
Synopsis: Based on a true story, Little Big Master chronicles the struggles of the lowest-paid headmistress in Hong Kong history.

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Critic Reviews

'Little Big Master' is the kind of movie that you'll probably feel bad for disliking even if it were terrible, but thankfully it never puts its audience in that position. A fact-based portrait of a former headmistress from an elite kindergarten who takes up the same role for a meagre payout at a ramshackle village school with just five children in its enrolment, it makes no attempt to conceal the fact that it intends to tug at your heartstrings – but by staying true to its subject as well as that of the real-life characters it aims to portray, there is absolutely no need for anyone to find an excuse to love it.

Playing the titular role of Madam Lilian Lui Wai-hung is Miriam Yeung, who gives one of her most down-to-earth and honest performances ever. That is evident right from the get-go, where in the opening scenes, Yeung effortlessly establishes her character as a passionate educator who resigns after the board of the prestigious pre-school she is at disagrees with her dressing down of a parent obsessed with grades. A few months of doing nothing in particular later, Hung chances across a news report on the predicament facing Yuen Tin Kindergarten, which is facing imminent closure by the village council at the end of its current school term if its numbers fall below the critical minimum of five when one of its students graduates.

After making a trip to visit the requisitely – and this in case, genuinely – adorable kids, Hung agrees to accept a HK$4,500 salary for being the school's headmistress cum janitor cum groundskeeper. The local road sweeper makes it a point every day to say loudly how futile her efforts are. Ditto the rest of the villagers, some of whom have begun accepting bets based on how long they think she will last. And yet Hung doesn't waver in her belief that each child deserves a good education, so she takes it upon herself to ensure not just that the grounds and the classrooms are clean and conducive but also that every one of her students shows up daily for lessons.

Tempting though it may be to O.D. his audience with scenes of Hung and her irresistibly and irrepressibly cute quintet of muppets, director Adrian Kwan doesn't sugar-coat the realities which his story derives from. Indeed, Kwan and his co-writer Hannah Cheung take pains to highlight the working-class backgrounds of each of the tots – Siu- suet (Ho Yuen-ying)'s father, played by veteran actor Richard Ng, is a single parent working as a scrap metal collector who is lucky to scrape enough each day to put food on the table for that day itself; Ka-ka (Fu Shun-ying) lost both her parents to a car accident one stormy day and is now cared for by her aunt; Chu- chu (Keira Wang) is afraid to come to school on days when her disabled dad (Philip Keung) loses his temper at scheming land developers harassing him to sign his current house away; and sisters Kitty Fathima (Zaha Fathima) and Jennie (Nayab Khan) have to help their mother in the kitchen where their father works too. As each child takes turns to skip school, Hung pays them a house visit to convince their parents of the importance of a proper education.

There is an important lesson here about the impact that a good educator can make, and Kwan emphasises that point by contrasting Hung's attitude with that of her former CEO's (Sammy Leung), whose chief aim is to capitalise on a pressure-cooker system to earn money from 'kiasu' parents. But Kwan is also careful not to sanctify his subject, hence the attention on developing a subplot related to Hung's marriage with designer Tung (Louis Koo) – though she promises initially that they would go on a tour around the world after his contract ends, she fails to tell him when she makes up her mind to stay on teaching at the kindergarten by organising an enrolment drive to keep the numbers going. Yeung's scenes with Koo add a refreshing dimension to her story, depicting a touching example of an ideal marriage built on trust, encouragement and mutual support.

That Yeung manages a modest chemistry with Koo should come as no surprise, since it is just months before that the pair were lovers in 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2'. What is quite amazing is the genuine rapport that Yeung shares with her much, much younger co- stars. Their casting from amongst 400 hopefuls who auditioned is spot-on; in particular, the emotional finale set on the very last day of the school term demonstrates how natural the kids are, and we guarantee that only a heartless monster will not be moved eventually. That credit is also Kwan's as well as his producer Benny Chan's (yes, the Benny Chan of 'The White Storm' and 'Shaolin'), who manage to coax such unaffected and even infectious performances from their first-time actresses.

Sure there are deliberate heart-rending moments, but by telling her story as it is and never being emotionally manipulative about it, Kwan – dubbed the 'Gospel Director' for his feel-good Christian films 'Sometimes, Miracles Do Happen', 'Life is a Miracle' and 'If U Care ...' – does a fittingly elegant tribute to his film's real-life hero. There is no place for cynicism or for that matter melodrama here; rather, this social-based drama that illuminates a cause worth fighting for is moving, affecting and inspirational in its own right. It's a little story of one teacher and five kids all right, but a big one about change, conviction, and making a positive difference.

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