A documentary with potentially plenty to say about its central protag and contempo China, Zhang Yuan’s “Crazy English” blunts its message by being 30 minutes too long and unnecessarily limiting its focus. Trimmed to an hour, this portrait of born showman Li Yang, whose mass teach-ins of English are more like group lessons in self-esteem than language classes, would make a much sharper, more entertaining docu, ideally fitted for small-screen exposure.
Li Yang began his unique way of teaching English back in 1988, at age 19, and has since set up a full-scale business in Beijing, touring the country and marketing books and accessories. Somewhere between the Japanese Suzuki violin technique and U.S. Marine self-motivation training, his method involves stadium gatherings in which he hectors, cajoles and entertains audiences with a mixture of simple catch phrases and hand movements replicating sounds.
Li’s message is an immensely clever one, seemingly undermining traditional Chinese shibboleths (“I enjoy losing face!” he gets his audience to shout) but actually proposing an intensely nationalist stance. Perhaps that is why he enjoys official sanction, as well as access to such sites as the Forbidden City for his lessons — subjects into which Zhang never ventures. In addition, parallels to Maoist-style rallies are shown but not underlined in any way. Zhang , who has had troubles with the authorities during his own career (“Beijing Bastards,” “East Palace, West Palace”), seems content to sit back and let his audience connect the dots.
Apart from a couple of short interviews, the docu mostly just follows Li around China as he goes through his stage shtick (“No pain, no gain!” and “Only crazy people can be successful!”), which is initially highly entertaining but starts to pall around reel four. We learn little about the man himself, apart from what he chooses to reveal, and there are no objective comments from observers.
For a subject so versed in Western marketing techniques and self-promotion, Zhang reserves his greatest irony for the very end, in which a caption notes that Li has so far never traveled outside mainland China. Tech credits are fine, though with no special gloss.