A Simple Film With a Profound Message, ‘Distinction’ Shows the Key Difference Between Understanding and Sympathy
Despite her reluctance, a music teacher in a special education needs (SEN) school, Ms. Tsui (Koo), is assigned to helm a musical performance with a Band 1 underachiever (Yu) and a Band 3 rebellious teenager (Sham). The three individuals take part in a musical they deem worthless but little do they know that an unexpected journey of self-discovery awaits them.
Director: Jevons Au
Cast: Jo Koo, Jennifer Yu, Kaki Sham
Country: Hong Kong
Runtime: 99 minutes
Known for having a political edge in his works, writer-director Jevons Au’s debut feature Distinction 非同凡響 inherits the same societal reflection and anxiety towards Hong Kong’s future from his previous works, the 2015 dystopian anthology Ten Years and 2016 crime thriller Trivisa. Distinction tells the story about a music teacher of a special needs school tasked to organise a musical performance with the help of students from other mainstream schools, who are either helping out as punishment for past mistakes or as a way to get better grades in school.
The title “Distinction” can mean a difference between two things, or a quality of excellence, and the film explores both of these meanings, the difference between intellectually disabled and mainstream students, and how the education system places more emphasis on academic excellence than personal development and growth.
Usually, films that tackle topics regarding minorities in society focus more on the negative effects of discrimination and stigmas against these groups of people, trying to create sympathy for their characters, but Distinction is different in the sense that it doesn’t want the audience’s sympathy or pity, all it wants is the audience’s understanding that these intellectually disabled students are just like everyone else, and should not be treated differently. As the school’s principal says, “No matter how hard we try, they are who they are.” We shouldn’t be trying to change them to fit into our perception of normality, we should be trying to understand and accept them for who they are.
Besides being a heartwarming drama about the stigma faced by children with intellectual disabilities, Distinction also takes a jab at Hong Kong’s education system and the effects it has on its youths. One of the characters in the film is an underperforming student, Zoey. Her parents expect her to do well in studies and to enrol in a good university, prioritising her grades over her passion. This mentality is also present in the parents of the intellectually disabled children where one of the mothers even tries desperately to get her son into a normal school.
However, despite touching on such a meaningful topic of intellectually disabled students, Distinction missteps in its execution. It tries to touch on too many topics in such a short time, and ends up being somewhat messy. The film introduces too many characters, but is unable to properly tie up each character’s arc, leaving many questions unanswered after the film is over. Some of the characters’ motivations are also unconvincing, and their decisions to help out with the musical feel forced and unmotivated. Distinction doesn’t quite live up to its title, despite having a meaningful message for such an important topic.
What saves the film, luckily, are the performances of the film’s leads. Actress Jo Koo plays Grace Chui, the teacher in charge of the musical. Her portrayal of a special needs school teacher who looks down on her own students is quite refreshing, as we see the obvious disdain Chui has towards her students and her choice to not have a child because she’s afraid that her child might be intellectually disabled. Koo handles this internal conflict with ease and plays her role as an unsympathetic teacher with a certain realism that is scary at times when you realise that this stigma can be present in both the public and special needs educators alike.
Jennifer Yu plays a shy and unconfident secondary school student Zoey, and even though her actual age is older than a secondary school student, she manages to look the part. But more admirably, Yu is able to portray the troubles of a secondary school student, from the worry of grades to the lack of confidence in oneself and uncertainty of the future.
Unlike most melodramas, Distinction doesn’t have very dramatic or over-the-top moments, so the film is rather light-hearted and simple. While some might find the film to be too plain or not impactful enough, it is this simplicity that allows audiences to focus on the different topics in the film and to truly identify with the experiences these characters are going through.
A powerful scene from the film is when a boy with autism refuses to take another route to school when there is a roadblock, and his tantrum draws the attention of onlookers who even take out their phones to record the situation. His mother begs the crowd to stop filming, and it is this moment that shows how our society can be quite cruel and ignorant when facing what we don’t know much about.
While Distinction focuses on intellectually disabled students, perhaps what is really inspiring is that its message of acceptance and understanding can and should be applied to everyone else too.
As part of the MINDS Film Festival 2020, Distinction will be screening at Shaw Lido on 16 January. Check out the trailer here.
About MINDS Film Festival
Since its inception, the annual MINDS Film Festival has become a unique platform to showcase the meaningful narratives and uplifting possibilities that persons with intellectual disabilities experience. Organised by MINDS and Singapore Film Society, MINDS Film Festival 2020 is a five-day festival that will invite the audience to step into the shoes of the intellectually disabled, fostering a greater sense of understanding within the community.
Kevin Chew, Director of Social Enterprises and Employment Development at MINDS and part of the MINDS Film Festival’s organising team, joined us on the red sofa to discuss how MINDS looks to use award-winning films to raise awareness and understanding of persons with intellectual disability amongst the wider community.