Time Out says
Award-winning director Jevons Au examines the Hong Kong education system
In the entire history of the Hong Kong Film Awards only one individual has directed back-to-back Best Film winners. And it’s not Wong Kar-wai, Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Johnnie To or any other of the local industry heavyweights. Rather, it’s Jevons Au, whose previous works – local dystopia Ten Years and triad throwback flick Trivisa– were king in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Of course, and here’s the catch, both films were collaborative efforts made with other co-directors, and Trivisa had none other than Johnnie To guiding it as producer. Still, Au was the one constant between those two films and his newest film has been eagerly anticipated since its announcement.
For his solo debut, Au has penned Distinction. The film centres on a musical being organised at a special needs school. Around this event orbit a host of characters each with their own cross to bear – the truculent student from a poor background wearied by living with his intellectually disabled brother; the teacher whose father has Alzheimer’s and who needs to move to a smaller flat to help pay for his care; the young girl studying for her DSE exams buckling under the twin pressures of her parents’ expectations and keeping up appearances alongside her rich classmates; the sunny and genuinely caring Xiao Li, a pupil shunned for her Mainland origins. The list goes on.
Mercifully, Distinction never descends into misery porn the way it easily could. Although it feels contrived that no-one has it easy, each character’s burden is presented matter-of-factly – an unfortunate reality for many Hongkongers – rather than as a personal melodrama. In fact, it could be argued the struggles in this film are actually more low key than the issues raise by Au’s previous films in relation to Beijing and the handover.
It’s to Au’s credit that the tone of the movie is one of quiet sincerity – no doubt helped by the fact that the film is based on true events – rather than overwrought grief. The film would likely have been more effective had the scope been narrowed and fewer characters been made the focus, but it’s impossible not to be moved by the actors’ various struggles. The acting, including that by a number of non-professions, feels natural and never exploitative, despite the central subject matter.
Standing on his own two feet for the first time, Au has done a commendable job. Distinction may not wow like Ten Years or Trivisa, but with its references to local topics like student suicide rates and our education system’s prevalence for crushing creativity, the film is just as urgent. A hat-trick of Best Film wins might be beyond him – though, don’t rule it out – but Au is undoubtedly the brightest young director working in Hong Kong today.