Sometime in the last couple of decades the English-speaking word lost its abiliy to produce the kind of film that draws handkerchiefs out of pockets–movies about the basic good in people that affirm your faith in humanity. Recent attempts have produced embarrassing duds. “Boychoir” (2014), about a troubled lad who flourishes at a choir school, earned a mere $1.8 million in worldwide box office receipts despite a cast that included Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates and Debra Winger. “Testament of Youth,” about a female Oxfordian who abandons college to become a nurse during World War I, earned just $1.8 million in the US and $600,000 in the UK. I saw a bit of both films on recent overseas flights, enough to know why audiences ignored them. They tried too heard to be heartwarming.
Compare that to this year’s Hong Kong hit, “Little Big Master.” The (supposedly) true story deals with a Hong Kong teacher who quits a prestigious job to take over a village kindergarten with just five girls while fighting cancer. It was spectacularly credible, in the way that American movies were back in the 1930s when Spencer Tracy sparred with Mickey Rooney in “Boys’ Town.” Of course, the plot is as hokey as it gets, but the child actors were so convincing in their depiction of earnest little girls from struggling families that it didn’t matter. Optimism is contagious, and I concede this as a confirmed pessimist ready to see the worst in everything. Against my ingrained instincts and conscious resistance, I found the optimism in “Little Big Master” irresistible. It earned HK $46 million so far this year, a big number for a limited-release Hong Kong movie, and a lot more than “Boychoir.”
Westerners have forgotten what it is to be innocent. Our children grow up too fast and become jaded too young. One can’t find Western child actors who convey the simple amazement of being young and viewing the world with fresh eyes. We want to recreate a child’s sense of wonder, and go through the motions in front of the cameras, but it doesn’t seem to work any more. China might not be the obvious place to look for what’s missing in the West, but it’s there. Wherever the West has gotten to, I hope China takes a detour.
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