A fact-based portrait of a Hong Kong headmistress who moved mountains to run a kindergarten for her five underprivileged pupils, “Little Big Master” has a humongous heart. So true is helmer Adrian Kwan to his subjects and his own moral convictions that he makes no attempt to rein in overflowing emotions or downplay the melodrama, allowing his protag’s remarkable deeds and an adorable young cast weave a perfectly charming spell. For local audiences bombarded by blockbusters catering to the mainland market, this humble ode to ordinary heroes is more than a breath of fresh air — it’s a clarion call to address the city’s galvanizing class divide. The result has every chance of becoming a domestic sleeper, with special attraction for family channels in Asia.
Abject poverty is not usually associated with Hong Kong’s freewheeling economy and rampant materialism, yet the screenplay by Kwan and psychiatric counselor Hannah Chang faithfully reflects the life of Lillian Lui, who made news by becoming Hong Kong’s lowest-paid headmistress in 2009. The premise recalls that of Riri Riza’s “Rainbow Troops,” Indonesia’s all-time box office champ, also based on an autobiographical novel. But whereas Reza’s film conjured uplifting moments of pupils triumphing over adversity, “Little Big Master” offers no easy solutions to a social malaise that individuals can only alleviate, not cure. Its tone remains solemn throughout, even withholding the feel-good information that Lui’s school has expanded to accept 64 pupils and five teachers.
The film offers a spot-on overview of Hong Kong’s pressure-cooker school system, starting with a tyke’s meltdown at an elite kindergarten. During the PTA meeting, headmistress Lui Wai-hung (Miriam Yeung) faces down a father who makes Amy Chua look like a kitten. Disillusioned with parents who only care about grades and a school board that only cares about donations, she resigns.
Incidentally, her husband, Dong (Louis Koo), has also quit his job as a museum curator after his ideas are tossed out in favor of cost-cutting alternatives. The two embrace this as an opportunity to go on a world tour. Then Lui comes across a news report on a kindergarten threatened with closure, unless they find a headmistress willing to accept a monthly salary of HK$4,500 (about $580). Since Dong’s contract expires in six months, Lui decides to take the job, but only long enough to find better schools for the remaining five pupils whose families are too poor to move out of far-flung Yuen Long.
The peculiar way in which Lui breaks the ice with the moppets — Ka-ka (Fu Shun-ying), Chu-chu (Keira Wang) and Siu-suet (Ho Yuen-ying), and Pakistani sisters Kitty (Zaha Fathima) and Jenny (Khan Nayab) — offers a delightful demonstration of her natural charisma and rapport with children. However, the story arc comes to revolve around the kids’ families, which typify Hong Kong’s forgotten underclass, such as Siu Suet’s scrap-collecting father (veteran comedian Richard Ng), whose mainland wife is denied right of abode, or Chu-chu’s disabled dad (Philip Keung), terrorized by thuggish developers that covet his ancestral home. The script also deserves kudos for taking viewers into Hong Kong’s most exploited ethnic community, from which Jenny and Kitty hail.
One by one, Lui helps the adults, irritable from eking out a living, to reconnect with their children, thus conveying the film’s core message that academic performance has as much to do with students’ backgrounds as with their learning aptitude. The mixed cast of veterans and non-pros deliver penetrating performances, conveying how much parents cherish their offspring, however difficult life is.
Though he’s earned the epithet “Gospel Director” after helming several faith-based films like “Miracle Box,” Kwan avoids imposing a Christian dimension on this work. Still, his moral stance can be gleaned from his scathing depictions of bureaucratic government bodies, greedy developers, and the schadenfreude of local villagers. It all culminates in a rousing scene in which Lui expresses her disgust at a money-grabbing offer from a cram-school chain and its mainland investors. Her assertion that “education means dedicating one’s life to cultivate other lives” embodies the altruism preached by many religions.
The film also portrays Lui and Dong as nonconformists whose horizons lie beyond their snug bourgeois existence. An endearing nerd, Dong is obsessed with building a 1:1 aspect-ratio guillotine for his French Revolution exhibition, suggesting a rebellious nature that mirrors her fighting spirit. The second half of “Little Big Master” focuses on how Lui pushes herself to the physical and mental limit to keep the school running. Kwan pulls out all the stops in a dramatically high-handed finale that might be scorned by certain critics, but which prompted a round of loud sobbing at the screening caught.
Yeung, who’s been maturing through sensitive works like “Love in the Buff” and “Aberdeen,” channels a wellspring of emotions that make her role bracingly human. The mother of a 2-year-old boy, she also looks genuinely blissful around her young co-stars. Taking a break from cool heartthrob roles, Koo is personable as the husband who manifests his love in an unconventional way. Although given dialogue that sometimes sounds too precocious, the tyke thesps are exceptionally natural and appealing: Though unrelated, Fathima and Nayab behave like inseparable siblings, while Fu’s pivotal performance during her parents’ row is pitch-perfect without ever seeming coached.
Tech credits by a top Hong Kong crew, including action helmer Benny Chan as a producer, are serviceable. D.p. Anthony Pun captures the drab New Territories and crumbling school with the plainest of shots, while Curran Pang’s editing could have been a beat faster. The choice of theme songs from Clifford Choi’s “Encore” (1980), sung by Danny Chan, and the 1976 children’s TV program “Little Sun,” work perfectly in context.