What Is A Good Teacher (2000)
by: Francis Ng
the DVD at:
Francis Ng goes from Cat III to Cat I (the highest and lowest movie rating in Hong Kong respectively) with his second directorial effort What Is A Good Teacher and once again he's doing double duty as actor as well.
Kong (Francis Ng from Juliet In Love) is a newly examined teacher and he has high ambitions to reach his pupils better than anyone else has ever done. At the beginning though his insecurity is much too evident for the students to relate to him. The elderly teacher Wan (Kwan Hoi San) explains to Kong that today's school system is out of date and new ways and blood is needed. Kong takes this advice and slowly starts to get the attention of the students through his teachings...
Francis Ng's film is not entirely easy to understand despite the simple plot synopsis. You do think of American movies like Stand And Deliver and Dangerous Minds when approaching this story but the structure of What Is A Good Teacher is very much its own. It doesn't resemble Francis first directed movie, 9413, visually, but one aspect does show up here and that is his deliberate slowness in getting the movie going. 9413 found it's identity in the end and what we have in What Is A Good Teacher is a movie with a message but done in a disjointed way.
As a viewer you do get a bit frustrated when a 90 minute movie really hasn't started properly after 20 minutes. After that minute mark, when Kong starts to mingle more with his students, the interest level rises. From here we're trained to expect a by the book teacher turns bad students into good ones-movie and it is that, but not in a conventional way. During some passages the movie is done more straightforward but what makes it almost abstract is the way Francis decides to deal with the narrative. We're thrown head first into certain scenes that does contain information and subtle meaning regarding the characters but the impression we get is one of confusion. I'm pretty convinced that it's a conscious choice by Francis in the way that he's challenging the audiences more. I'm one of those that likes to get the full experience on the first viewing but certain movies has more to offer when you come better prepared a second time around.
I was left a little disappointed after this first viewing but once you start to think and analyze what you've just seen, some things and intentions become more clearer. The entire content of this movie cannot be digested at once so you either sit down and think hard about it or schedule another viewing to pick up what you MIGHT have missed. Speaking again of narrative structure, I always welcome new ways to express yourself in movies and Francis sure isn't set out to follow conventions. Scenes in What Is A Good Teacher that seem out of place becomes more meaningful as I write this and that's a great power of cinema, that a movie can still be absorbed after it's done.
Following Kong and trying to figure out his intentions is pretty interesting. Surprisingly there are very few scenes that takes place in the classroom but instead on the streets of Hong Kong where Kong hangs out with his pupils. He may seem a bit odd but in fact I believe he's very much running the show and making the students themselves realize the shortcomings of the educational system. Kong's philosophy is that everything must be taught not memorized but the students around him don't buy that initially. They're not hoodlums or triads but they still don't see any big future for themselves. Kong has to sink to their level in order to steer them in the right direction. All this that I've mentioned, Francis doesn't spell out for us clearly so we have to watch and listen in order to appreciate what's actually being said.
The things you do understand after the first viewing is the technical aspects of Francis Ng's direction. 9413 was more visual with small nods to Wong Kar-Wai's work but What Is A Good Teacher has something to say rather than relying on visual trickery. Having said that, there are a few wilder shots but mostly the camera just pans back and forth to draw us in that way. Not the most interesting stuff to watch but this is not a mainstream movie that uses visuals to cover up the lack of plot. This movie is a drama but not an emotional one as such and it's basically watching events unfold that is the drama of What Is A Good Teacher. Little moments of comedy are inserted but they don't feel out of place and the most extreme joke is rather calmly played. So you won't see a graphic rape followed by a breast joke in this Hong Kong movie.
On the acting side of things, Francis has gotten together a few familiar faces. Anthony Wong and Cheung Tat-Ming (from Big Bullet) appear in smaller roles as teachers. Anthony makes good use of the screentime he has but looking back at it, he has no real place in the structure of this movie. However, he doesn't feel like a character inserted to pad the running time either. He's just a touch for Francis to provide viewers with and that is not a negative thing at all. Anthony plays it low key and that is evident in the very funny scene where he catches most of his students cheating. Same goes for Cheung Tat-Ming that seem to do another job through his earpiece while teaching in the movie. He's not as interesting as Anthony but again, he's part of the movie in his own way.
Francis himself doesn't deliver a career best performance but there's some interesting traits to this character nonetheless, which makes it not a copy of previous roles. His slightly eccentric nature (that reminds a little of his portrayal of Uncle Jet in Bakery Amour) is well played out but the thing I really liked was how he blended in amongst the young people of the cast. As soon as he starts to spend time with them, his way makes him become one of them almost. The cast of students are a bunch of unknown faces to me but they immersed themselves in the roles fairly well. No one particular impressed or stood out though. Kwan Hoi San (from Hard Boiled) turns up in a pleasant role as well. His scenes with Francis are very good and seeing two veterans, one young and one old, is special in this film.
Francis Ng's What Is A Good Teacher is an odd experience. I felt disappointed afterwards but with this review I started to realize what Francis wanted. He's thinking and wants to distinguish himself from other directors, a trait that can only get better. As with 9413, this is not a great movie but it's interesting.
Winson presents the movie in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The credits sequence is riddled with print damage but this soon clears up. Only minor wear appears throughout after this. Other than that colour and detail is not bad at all considering the low budget nature of the film.
The Cantonese 2.0 track is very much centered and only uses surrounds for some ambience. There's a fair amount of distortion in the dialogue through the entire film but it could be due to the original sync sound recording. It's more noticeable in the beginning. A 5.1 Cantonese track as well as 2.0 and 5.1 options for Mandarin are also included.
Winson has done well on other subtitle jobs and this is one of them. The English subtitles are grammatically correct for most of the movie and only minor spelling errors was present. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. There are no extras on the disc.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson