FILM REVIEW: Senior Teacher 有的人
Mr. Hu, a respected teacher in the community, gets into trouble after he hits a misbehaving girl in his class. Upon waking up, the girl says she cannot hear anything. Realising that his life is sinking into a mess, Mr. Hu sets out to prove his innocence.
Director: Sha Mo (沙漠)
Cast: Tian Xiaojie, Xu Nuo, Sun Bo
Review by Leon Lau
Should teachers be allowed to hit their students? It’s a question that would understandably spark debate in any part of the world, and it’s even more relevant today where leaked footage of teachers beating students can be found online. Whichever way you fall on the issue of corporal punishment, the question is placed at the forefront of Senior Teacher (2017), and it doesnt pull any punches.
This is a solemn, powerful piece of work that puts the anger and frustration that teachers face everyday on display.
Shot in gorgeous black and white, the first thing that grabs you about the film is its directorial style. We open with a wordless montage accompanied by beautiful classical music as we follow the life of Mr. Hu (Tian Xiaojie), a hardworking and respected teacher. His days are spent watching over his students in school, volunteering in the cafeteria, before retreating home to write in his diary.
It’s a solemn lifestyle that underlines the character’s single mindedness as he seeks to only devote himself to being a teacher. Until one day, his entire practice is called into question. When dealing with an unruly student, Sharon, Mr. Hu snaps momentarily and smacks her.
The scene unfolds so rapidly that it puts the audience in a state of unease since we never get a clear shot of the incident. So when Sharon does faint, we can’t tell if its a genuine injury, or blackmail. Guilty or innocent, Senior Teacher tracks the horrific consequences that Mr. Hu has to face.
Tian Xiaojie is brilliant as the teacher facing prosecution under the weight of the public scrutiny. While Mr. Hu scrambles to understand what he did, a mob mentality takes hold of the public. Seeing the raw anger and disbelief in Tian Xiaojie’s wide eyes is unnerving to watch, as he goes through a gauntlet of confrontation from parents, colleagues and students. Even harder are the scenes where he confronts himself, his face sagging from exhaustion as he questions his teaching methods. After all, corporal punishment has been banned in China since 1986, so the practice is an outdated one.
Much of the prosecution Mr. Hu faces feels so personal as a result of the film’s execution. The classical style that director Sha Mo (沙漠) employs here lends a memoir like quality to Senior Teacher. One of the most impactful devices that Sha Mo uses are the hard jump cuts to Mr. Hu’s diary entries. There is no monologue or voiceover used here. Just plain text staring back at us, forcing us to look into his thoughts.
“Problematic children always have problematic parents. I’m kind of tired.”
The production design also helps to reflect Mr. Hu’s state of mind, and the third act delves into surrealistic elements where backdrops and environments take on a dreamier appearance. It’s all done with incredible attention to detail, and makes for a visually arresting finale.
Senior Teacher’s story does not make for easy viewing, but it is an important one to experience. Far too often these days, headlines on the news can drive us to quick judgement, and social media can help perpetuate a mob mentality. The film challenges our perceptions of innocence by refusing to take sides with any one character. In doing so, Senior Teacher serves as a bleak reminder that sometimes, things aren’t always so black and white.
Senior Teacher is the Viddsee Shortee Winner March 2019
You can watch Senior Teacher online through Viddsee here