The selflessness of one teacher is the inspiration for director Adrian Kwan’s latest tearjerker.
IT is uncommon to come across a movie director – in fact, a man for that matter – as sentimental as Adrian Kwan.
During a 30-minute interview with the Malaysian media before the gala premiere of his latest work Little Big Master in Hong Kong (the film, distributed by Lotus Five Star, opens in Malaysian cinemas today), we could see tears glistening in his eyes and heard his voice turn hoarse on several occasions.
What lead actor Louis Koo said later on stage confirmed our observation – that Kwan cries really easily.
“He spent about 30 minutes trying to tell me the plot, but started crying after two minutes, I could not hear anything he said in the next 20-odd minutes. Then I said, ‘why don’t you just give me the script, I will read it myself’,” he said with a laugh.
Koo also related how after every take, the crew would have a weird moment where they would wonder if they did alright, as they had to wait for the director to stop crying first!
Based on a true story that happened in 2009, the movie is about the endeavour undertaken by headmistress Lui Lai Hung to save a rural kindergarten left with only five pupils. The school faced closure if the number dropped further, and to make it more complicated, one of the children was due to graduate as well.
The school gained public attention when a recruitment advertisement for headmaster was put up, but all the school could offer was HK$4,500 (RM2,145), which is peanuts in a country where the simplest meal costs HK$35 (RM16.68). But Lui, who used to earn HK$25,000 (RM11,915) before quitting from a well-known international kindergarten, stepped forward to help.
Having recovered from a major surgery, Lui’s initial plan was to transfer the five children to other schools, but that proved to be more challenging after the children opened up to her, and led her into their families, who were all trapped in struggles and miseries because of poverty.
Against prejudice and sarcasm, Lui changed not just the attitude of the children’s parents, but also that of the jaded villagers and profit-minded educationists with her clear conscience as a teacher. With that, the school was eventually saved, though not before she collapsed from another blow of the same illness though.
Singer cum actress Miriam Yeung plays Lui, while Koo is her ever supportive husband.
Much to everyone’s delight, Lui, who keeps a low profile these days, also appeared at the on-stage ceremony before the premiere and told her side of the story. She praised Yeung for managing to grasp and portray her inner thoughts naturally and honestly.
Looking back at herself through this film, Lui still finds it a frightening experience.
“My heart ached so much when I saw the five children in newspapers. They were wearing face masks (in the movie, it is explained that their parents asked them to do so to avoid being recognised as poor people) and I muttered to myself, why should these children feel so ashamed about studying?” she said.
While the story itself is no doubt moving, Kwan’s sensitivity in capturing delicate emotions had everyone sobbing away in the dark almost throughout the movie.
“In 2013, I visited a number of poor families through voluntary work, and what surprised me most was how relationship tensions loosen and things changed for the better when people are reminded of their dreams. I sent those photos to some friends in the film industry and one day, one of them called and suggested turning Lui’s story into a movie. I said yes at once,” recalled Kwan, who is nicknamed the “Gospel Director” for directing films that spread positive messages, such as Team of Miracle: We Will Rock You (2009), and 6am (2009).
Kwan then roped in his mentor, Benny Chan, to be the producer. Chan, a veteran director known for blockbuster action movies like Jackie Chan’s New Police Story and Andy Lau classic A Moment of Romance, said Lui was a real-life heroine.
“When we first visited her, she was busying sending food stuff to her students. She has a storage room for food she collects from friends for the children,” said Chan.
“Even though the kindergarten now has 60-something students, her salary is still the same (HK$4,500) because the school’s expenditure increases as the number of students goes up. Even the school’s janitor gets a higher pay than she does.”
Film adaptations of true stories are uncommon in Hong Kong as that does not usually guarantee box office success. However, inspired and touched by Lui’s unwavering spirit, both the director and producer were determined to proceed no matter what.
Chan commented that Hong Kong movies in the past few years have been cliched, while one like this was refreshing.
Kwan added: “It’s not that those exaggerated, fictional productions are not good, but I think viewers should be given another option. We should highlight the extraordinary strength of ordinary people,” Kwan added.
Stars and kids
The two stars – Koo and Yeung – were their first choices for the movie. Chan said Koo had been the only person he had in mind. “I need an actor of such stature for a story so meaningful,” he said.
Yeung, who embraced motherhood three years ago, was perfect for the role of Lui. “Being a mother helps her understand the sentiments better. She shared a lot of her thoughts about children and they were really helpful,” Chan explained.
“She also has to switch from her usual image as someone who laughs a lot to this character that requires her to be quiet, simple and unadorned. She did very well, we give her 100%.”
Koo, on the other hand, got 200% from both producer and director. “We give him 200% because he never tried to steal the show, and humbly plays the role of the headmaster’s supportive husband despite his fame. We also managed to make him sing in the movie! That, I would say, is the hardest part of this whole project,” Chan added with a laugh.
The other main challenge of this movie was finding the right child actors to play the five children. Chosen from over 400 children who thronged the open audition, the five who were eventually chosen were picked not just for their acting skills.
“We did not want little actors, so we looked for the unpretentious, inexperienced and clever ones,” Kwan said.
Eventually, the five child actresses played their roles so well that that Chan wanted to nominate all of them for Best Actress award.
Koo said one of the children, Ka Ka, made him cry the entire day after she acted a scene of her giving an emotional speech at the graduation.
“I have never seen him cry this much, it was quite scary,” added Yeung, who was reduced to tears so often during filming that some scenes were delayed because her eyes were too puffy.
Kwan’s heart goes on
Initially planned to be a low-budget project of a few millions, the movie budget ballooned to HK$30mil (RM14.25mil) as the crew used the multi-camera technique to capture the best expressions.
Even before the movie is released, Chan said there were already suggestions to make a sequel. Whether or not that comes to pass, Kwan is determined to keep making films that touch lives.
“Lui’s story only makes my belief stronger. I told her if she did not give up during that hard time, I will not give up no matter what. She even said she would not want a raise throughout her life, I am so moved that there are still people like her in money-oriented Hong Kong,” Kwan said.
Feedback from others who have watched his movies also made him more determined to stay on this path.
“I am blessed to be told that my movies have brought changes to people’s lives. A Japanese teacher found his passion in teaching again because of this movie. My doctor thanked me because his father was finally willing to undergo cancer treatment. Some friends told me their relationship with their fathers changed after watching my works.
“A vagrant even told me that he did not want to return to the streets ever again because of my movie. I mean, how much money can you pay to get a homeless person back on the right track?”
With tears once more welling up in his eyes, he pledged: “For the rest of my life, I will not stop making movies that touch people’s hearts.”