Superior performances by Hong Kong’s Tony Leung Ka-fai and Mainland actress Qin Hailu turn “My Career as a Teacher” into an affecting, well-shot drama rather than just a trot through recent Chinese history. Tale of a selfless primary school teacher in the provinces who survives various political campaigns and social changes is ideal film week fare, easily digestible and with a human edge. Pic won Leung the Best Hong Kong Actor gong at this spring’s Beijing Student Film Festival and was released in China in early September.
First of five segs opens in summer ’63 as young, accordion-carrying Chen Yu (Leung), who’s been back in China for six years, arrives at Yueliangwan (Moon Bay) school in rural Hubei province. A brief reference in the script makes it clear he’s been sent to the boondocks for some political transgression by his family, and his easygoing nature is immediately at odds with the starchy school head.
Also teaching there is feisty Zhou Min (Qin), who gives him a hard time for his lack of political correctness, though there’s clearly an attraction between the two. When Chen starts giving his pupils sex education lessons, he’s sent away for “reform.”
Five years later — during the height of the Cultural Revolution — Chen is feeding pigs. But a reunion with Zhou ends in them bonding more than just culturally.
Story jumps forward 16 years, to when the two are now married with a problem teen son, Taotao (Zhang Xiaodao), and Chen is working as a teacher again. Ever good-natured, he plays good Samaritan to raise money for uniforms for a school performance, but at home things are not going smoothly with Taotao, who absconds to Beijing.
Brief final chapters, set in 1998 and 2000, close the yarn, which has been voiced-over throughout by Chen in flashback.
Largely through the chemistry between Leung and Qin, the pic’s first half has a lightly humorous touch which leavens the yarn as it follows a familiar course through China’s various upheavals. Latter going, with the main characters now aged, is less successful, and Leung’s goody-two-shoes character starts to grate.
But the wealth of supporting characters and multiple side-stories keep the movie afloat. Nimble, unshowy helming by young writer-director Zheng Kehong and attractive Hubei locations are pluses. Pic is also known as “My Teaching Career.”