Jevons Au has already made a name of himself, with his involvement in “Trivisa” and “Ten Years”, two films that, apart from their quality, also share a ban from being released in China. Both of these elements extend to Au’s first solo feature film, “Distinction”.
The script revolves around a musical that is to commence at the end of the school year in a SEN school. Through this concept, we are introduced to the three main characters and a number of peripheral ones. Grace is the teacher in charge of the project. She is patient and quite nice with the children, but is also a woman tired of working there, not to mention extremely scared that one of her own children will end up being SEN, a concept that prevents her from having ones with her loving husband. Furthermore, as time passes and various issues with the play arise, angst begins to take over. The second is Ka-ho, a delinquent who neglects his school in order to sell stolen mobile phones. After a number of incidents in his school, he is “forced” to volunteer in the musical, where his brother, Ka-long is also playing. Through their story, we also learn about their father, a truck driver who is somewhat ashamed for his SEN son, a fact that is the root of many issues for the whole family. The third one is Zoey, an elite girl who also finds herself volunteering in the musical, and in the process, discovering her true calling, to the frustration of her mother who wants to see her getting in one of the elite universities. Eventually, Zoey and Ka-ho strike an unlikely friendship, as the struggle for the musical to commence becomes harder.
The most obvious trait of the film is character creation, with Au and his co-writers, Ashley Cheung and Chung Chuiyi, doing an excellent job, creating a number of archetypical characters that succeed in portraying a significant part of the HK society. In that fashion, Grace symbolizes the ones who want to help with the SEN issue but find themselves overwhelmed with the situation, which also takes a toll on their lives outside their profession. At the same time, she symbolizes the angst women in HK face regarding marriage and children, while HK birth rate continues dropping.
Ka-ho represents the “low” students, who have no chance for academic achievement and find themselves lost in a society that seems to promote (or even allow) a single path towards financial achievement.
Zoey, on the other hand, symbolizes the pressure elite students feel to get in the prestigious universities, in a “kill or be killed” race of academic competitiveness, which frequently ends up in cases of extreme angst or even suicide.
The peripheral characters also have archetypical properties. Ka-ho and Ka-long’s father symbolize the difficulties parents of “disabled” children face, both psychologically and practically, with the movie also stressing the fact that many people tend to make fun of both SEN children and their parents. Zoeys mother represents the parent, who, in the name of “what is for the child’s own good” actually impose their will on them, neglecting their needs and wishes. Lastly, the people using students to forward stolen goods is also a comment regarding the black market that seems to thrive in the area.
Despite the realistic presentation of all the above elements, as much as the actual circumstances of the SEN children, the basis of the film is not overdramatic at all, in another one of its biggest traits. Jevons Au has filled the narrative with a sense of hope, which works quite well as a whole, as it allows him to avoid the reef of the melodrama. Occasionally, it may even seem as a bit unrealistic and even naive, but I felt that this approach helps the movie presents its comments with burdening the audience with unnecessary drama. Au does not try to draw sentiment, but to show the situation as it is, along with the fact that “everything will be ok in the end,” even in these circumstances, which is actually just an optimistic possibility.
The aesthetics of the film follow a bittersweet, mellow atmosphere, with the focus being on realism. Zhang Ying’s cinematography follows this premise to the fullest, with him portraying the various settings the story takes place in with accuracy. Emily Leung’s editing gives a relatively fast pace, which serves that narrative quite well. The mellowness is also stressed by the very fitting music of Charles Lau and Martin Lai.
The acting follows the same realistic lines, with the protagonists avoiding any extreme behaviors, at least for the most part. In that fashion, Jo Koo as Grace, Kaki Sham as Ka-ho and Jennifer Yu as Zoey portray their characters as naturally as possible, in perfect resonance with the film’s aesthetics.
“Distinction” is a great film, and Jevons Au seems to have chosen the optimal way of portraying a number of comments regarding Hong Kong, thus achieving to shoot a movie that can be very interesting to audiences all over the world.