A dedicated teacher runs afoul of Chinese bureaucracy and provincial desperation in “The Exam,” a slow-moving, exquisitely lensed tale set in China’s remote wetlands of Heilongjiang province. Yarn is allegedly based on a true story, with most participants playing themselves. Pic has a sad, quiet dignity that refutes the accusation (made in some Chinese quarters) that it is the progeny of mere politics. A natural for fests, it may prove a good prospect for classy arthouse distribs.
Qu (Qu Fengqin) is the sole teacher in a five-student school on a swamp-surrounded island in China’s Zhalong nature reserve. Qu has a strong track record, managing for the previous nine years to train her few, isolated charges to garner top results for the region, despite a lack of resources and considerable isolation. With an exam impending, she looks set to duplicate her previous accomplishments.
On a day trip to the city to pick up the official exam papers, Qu makes a request to the Director of the Education Bureau (Zhang Haibin) for a transfer to the city’s central school. The director confirms that, given her track record, there should be no problem.
While in the city, Qu visits her two grown daughters. Concerned by their health problems and possible moral relaxation, she is further convinced that she should return to urban life.
As specified by government rules, Qu is not allowed to be in the same room as her students on the day of the exam. In her stead, the village chief (Zhou Haichun) stands in for her as supervisor.
When Qu checks the exam papers that night, she’s horrified to discover her students have either scribbled gobbledygook on the pages or given the wrong answers to questions she knows they’re well capable of answering. Outraged, she tracks down the eldest student (Liu Laifu) to find out why.
With its deliberate pacing, pic requires perseverance but will reward auds who persist. Helmer Pu Jian brings an artistic flair to the docu-like material through exquisite compositions, and Ma Yongcheng’s dazzling lensing captures the rich golds and greens of the northeast China wetlands. It all makes for a luxurious visual experience.
Dialogue and thesps are slightly stiff. But given that all actors are non-professionals, and most are re-enacting events, this adds to the sense of authenticity. Big, invigorating score is rich in tone but never pompous. Other tech credits are good quality.