Country Teacher
directed by He Qun
(Tianjin & Xiaoxiang, 1993;
China Century, 2003)

Only a small percentage of people in the U.S. watch foreign films on a regular basis. Consequently, they miss out on some excellent cinema. Much of the world sees life in the U.S. through its films. The Celebration of Chinese Cinema (CCC) would like turn the table and introduce audiences in the States to life in China by releasing 50 Chinese movies on DVD in the coming years.

The first film to be released is Country Teacher. Directed by He Qun, this film was originally released in China in 1993 and won several awards at the time. On the newly released DVD version, the dialogue is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Country Teacher focuses on the plight of what many rural teachers in China go through. The film starts out with Zhang Yingzi (played by Ju Xue) as a 20-year-old who was unable to pass the entrance exams to continue her education in college. Fortunately, or perhaps not, her uncle is able to find her a job as a teacher in a poor, small village. Yingzi is reluctant to take the job because non-certified teachers are not guaranteed pay and benefits from the government. Having no other prospects, however, she takes the job.

The small school has only four teachers and perhaps 10 times as many students registered, although half do not show up either because their parents cannot afford to pay or because they are needed on the family farms. Zhang Yingzi discovers that the school has been falsifying reports to the authorities to get more funding; she reports them and then can't understand why she becomes a target of disdain from other teachers.

Country Teacher is a very slow film. There is not much action as most of the story is told through dialogue. It is predictable. There is also some trouble with the subtitles, which are occasionally unreadable because they placed white words on a light background or, worse, they went off the screen. Sometimes the English translations made no sense. On the bright side, I thought some of the acting to be quite good. In particular, one of the minor characters, a little girl named Li Zi played by Pang Meng, was very believable. For a young girl of no more than 10 (I would guess), she deftly went through whatever emotions her scenes called for, from being scared and crying to acting friendly or aloof. Most of the other children, on the other hand, acted like they were acting -- stiff, forced, wooden.

While I am not an expert on Chinese cinema, I have seen more engaging films from that nation, including Raise the Red Lantern and Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker. Country Teacher is not bad. However, I think the only people who might want to watch it are those interested in the Chinese educational system or die-hard foreign film buffs who want to view everything out there.

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 6 March 2004