Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 23, 2019 5:23 pm 
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Yearnin' learnin'

In the late ’90s, the clean cut geeky Lu Youhong (Noah Jin) takes a first teaching job as the instructor in Chinese (to which maths and English are quickly added as faculty members defect) at the remote Zhige Wushu Academy for martial-arts for young boys. It's an arid environment for humanistic learning. The wushu lessons, intensely physical, leave little time or energy for book learning and that's okay with the headmaster. Moreover Lu isn't anybody special. He's gotten this job because he's the dean's nephew. The dean wants him to serve as a "catfish," stirring some life into the sluggish, bored other faculty members.

This is an atmospheric period piece that charms by reveling in the simple life of inland China more than two decades ago, when there are no computers or smart phones and you pay someone to use a local phone if you need to talk outside. The school buildings are big and old and rustic.

These boys in the early teens, all wearing identical red and white school sweat suits, are in fine shape, visible at shower time, an anonymous cast that seems to have been carefully screened for athletic talent. Their mass displays of uniformly choreographed martial arts moves led by harsh coach You Hu are impressive. This is an old fashioned tale of boarding school sufferings and life lessons. But this is a special place because 99% of the students live only for the dream of becoming another Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li.

Of young novice teacher Lu's many students, only one visibly cares about academics: Zhang Cuishan (Hou Yunxiao), who excels at schoolwork but hates martial arts and tries to run away all the time, getting caught on one of his escapes in fact on the very day of Lu's arrival - by bicycle - the way most people got around in China before the industrial capitalist boom time came. As Lu tries to form a protective bond with the bullied Zhang, whose parents live on a boat and have sent him away because he can't swim, he also develops a crush on the school’s pretty young doctor An Lan and receives insider tips and wisdom from the principal’s quirky grown son Jiang Qin, who ranks lower in his father's eyes than his beloved pet falcon. Jiang Qin likes to chew gum and smoke. He's a slacker who hangs around at the school, out of favor with his father but ever present on the fringes.

There is also an elderly marshal arts guru, a distinguished-looking Mr. Miyagi type with goatee and eyepatch, who wanders the country looking for opponents. Only later in this longish two-hour film does this season-marking subplot make sense. Huang Huang's movie, simple and crowd-pleasing but ambitious in its way, almost wants to be a TV miniseries, the director seeming as enthusiastic and willing to take on additional subjects as his young schoolteacher protagonist.

Whushu Orphan 武林孤儿, 120 mins., premiered at the 31st Tokyo International Film Festival, where Huang Huang was awarded the Spirit of Asia Award for a promising new director presented in the Asian Future section. Reviewed in Asian Movie Pulse.
Sunday, June 30
8:30 PM
Walter Reade Theater


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