Donnie Yen is China's fastest-rising contemporary movie star for a reason. In addition to possessing some killer martial arts skills, my man has charisma to spare, stealing the show in both Rogue One and xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, both times in minor roles. Donnie Yen is awesome and winsome and wholesome, and then some.
Yen's magnetism is a significant reason why his latest film Big Brother works. Our guy plays Henry Chen, a brand-new teacher at a struggling Hong Kong high school - hired, puzzlingly, despite possessing zero educational experience. His approach to the troubled students of Class 6B is unconventional, diverging from the officially-approved curriculum to teach critical thinking. Even more unusual is his willingness to step into his students’ lives to improve their problematic home situations - even if those situations involve a mob boss bent on tearing down the school to build condos.
If this sounds like a nakedly inspirational drama, that's because it is. Big Brother is a message movie above all else, and it all starts with Henry Chen. The man has no flaws, which would ordinarily make a character grating to watch, but Yen miraculously pulls it off. He tears through the school fixing everyone's problems, and it's absolutely goddamn wonderful to watch. In the course of the film, Donnie Yen solves alcoholism, bullying, ADHD, sexism, gang violence, and more, all through simply sitting down and having some hard talks with parents. He pumps his fist in victory multiple times. He says “yes!” often, and “you can do it!” even more so.
This being a Donnie Yen joint, a mid-film twist that Chen is a former Marine and current martial-arts master comes as no surprise (especially to those who've seen the film's trailer). The two significant action setpieces - a fight against an MMA champion in an arena locker room and a brawl with mafia goons in the school - are fine, if not revelatory, mining most of their best gags from the use of objects like locker doors, basketballs, classroom desks, and so on. Yen delivers everything we want in these scenes, though the editing chops a bit too quickly in places. More importantly, the fight scenes (and a go-kart chase) are rooted in character and story, caused by and causing ripples in the narrative.
Big Brother's most interesting elements lie, surprisingly, in the message itself. In a moderately subversive move, the film rails against the entrenched Hong Kong school system, which prioritises standardised testing and rote learning for students and apportions funding according to test scores rather than need. Chen's school is nearly shut down due to poor performance (itself caused by a vicious cycle of underfunding), until he convinces a few key people not to abandon troubled students, but give them a fighting chance. Everything in the movie reflects that theme to one degree or another - even the mafia-boss villain, whose backstory includes personal beef with Chen. Both men have problematic backgrounds, and arcs based around second chances. It's an empathetic message that runs in stark contrast to many education systems around the world.
Without Donnie Yen, Big Brother would be unbearably cheesy, its rock-ballad soundtrack grating on everyone. But Yen's delightful smile and visible personal investment in the material elevate a piece of after-school special schmaltz into something genuinely uplifting. Action fans may be slightly disappointed, but in this case, fuck action fans. Won't somebody think about the kids?
Donnie Yen will. And as a result, so will you.