Hi everyone, it’s Kaycee.
I want to talk about a 2016 Chinese film today, called《驴得水》, Mr. Donkey. It was a play initially and then it was made into a film. I watched the play first, then the film and after watching the film, oh my god, did I cry. I’d say this is one of the best Chinese films in the last 10 years or so.
Mr Donkey is absurdist comedy set in 1942, about a group of morally questionable teachers from the city who set up a school in a poor, rural area of China with the dream of providing education to those who are in poverty. Life is hard but the teachers get along well and are happy until the education authorities sent some people down to inspect the school. A teacher going by the name of Mr. Donkey has a secret to hide, and just when everyone thought the secret was going to be exposed, their saviour appeared but who knew this was just the beginning of the real disaster.
Warning, plot spoilers ahead.
If absurdist comedy is done well, it can excellently portray human nature whilst keeping the surprise element and Mr Donkey exhibits human greed extremely well. There are five key characters in the film, the Headteacher, Pei Kuishan, Zhou Tienan, Zhang Yiman and the Coppersmith. Again, for Chinese names, I’m saying their surnames first.
In the very first scene of the film, we see a little bit of greed in the four teachers, the Headteacher, Péi Kuíshān, Zhou Tienan and Zhang Yiman. In the meeting where they were discussing whether to give students scholarships, they looked at their accounts and discovered that everyone had used public funds for personal purposes somewhat. It’s not a huge deal in this context but it does set the pretext that these characters are all encompassing some sort of selfishness. And at the back of the school, there is a donkey living in a makeshift hut and the hut caught fire. The combination of these two scenes foreshadow the real disaster yet to come.
The good intentions of these four characters are about to be tested and completely destroyed.
The Headteacher is what’s known as a typical practical intellectual, he can do a lot of bad things to achieve a good thing, he believes in the saying that people with big goals should not be hindered by small things. For him, his big goal is to run the school.
The Headteacher’s personality basically stays the same; he appears gentle and softly spoken. But we get to see how again and again his limits are tested and lost.
At the beginning, he built a school in this rural little village, which is a great, respectable thing to do. Then, in order to obtain funding for the school, he lied and wrote in the report that there is another teacher going by the name of Mr Donkey, which, in reality, is the actual donkey at the back of the school. The lie becomes bigger and bigger and bigger and brought danger to everyone around him.
For his dream, he lowered his bottom line again and again, forgetting why he had the dream of running a school in this rural village in the first place. People with big goals should not be hindered by small things, right? For his “big goal”, he sacrificed the “small things” of other people’s dignity, freedom and sentiments.
He asked the Coppersmith to be Mr Donkey, he agreed that Zhang Yiman should sleep with the Coppersmith to get him to agree to play the part of Mr Donkey. He let Pei Kuishan indulge in his greediness and flaws. He sacrificed Zhang Yiman and allowed her to be verbally abused and insulted by the others and personally cut her hair to exhibit her shame. He even sacrificed his own daughter.
After everything that happened, we ask ourselves, is it worth it?
The Coppersmith started off being a kind and innocent man with no particular desires or education. After he was trained, educated and slept with, he changed.
The Coppersmith is a stereotypical image of a scumbag, showing what a timid person without much education but a lot of power looks like.
This character is almost an irony of education, a teacher can teach you knowledge but they cannot teach you how to be a good person. The wrong way of teaching is often counterproductive. Without proper education, no matter how much you know you can still be a scumbag.
And, of course, there is Pei Kuishan. Pei Kuishan is the real bad guy in this, I think. He loves money and is utterly selfish. The only good thing about him was the kindness he showed to Zhang Yiman when he was pursuing her. But when he was rejected and after Zhang Yiman slept with the Coppersmith, his values began to change. This tiny little bit of innocence that he still had left in him disappeared. Since he couldn’t have Zhang Yiman, he chose to destroy her. Very extreme, terrifying.
When his own interests were violated, he shouted “Why do you use your moral standards to kidnap my interests”.
I thought about this sentence for a very long time after I watched the movie. If we look at the sentence on its own, it seems fine. We all have the right to choose how we live our lives, right? But I cannot agree with what Pei Kuishan did, at all. Maybe it was because he was being too extreme.
I think the sentence is also missing a definition for moral standard. It’s important for someone to have the right kind of views and moral standards, of course, this correctness is a scale, there are just some things that can’t be black and white.
Zhou Tienan, the only character in the film with a backbone, who is righteous and courageous. He was the only one who opposed to Zhang Yiman sleeping with the Coppersmith, the only one who didn’t insult Zhang Yiman like the others did. But when he was shot at and the bullet missed his head by mere millimetres he got scared. He knelt down and surrendered himself, he became rogue and allowed himself to be used the other side. He even persuaded the girl he liked to pretend to be someone else’s fiancé.
I guess this is cowardice. But you can’t really blame him right? He had a gun to his head. Between maintaining justice and being alive, he chose to be alive but not really living.
Zhan Yiman is an independent woman, optimistic, headstrong, free and easygoing. She has her thoughts and ideas. In terms of sex, she completely subverted the views of how a traditional woman should be like. With the year 1942 as the backdrop, she had a lot of societal pressures, which is why she refused to leave the school. She found the school to be more freeing than the outside world.
She is undoubtedly beautiful, although in her pursuit of freedom her actions may seem a bit… disagreeable, shall we say? She’s not bad in nature. She slept with the Coppersmith, not because she wanted the money but because she knew how important the funding was to the school.
She insulted the Coppersmith and called him an animal because she wanted to help the headteacher and not let the secret out, and because she wanted to let the Coppersmith go home and live his own life. But, unfortunately, the Coppersmith heard the insults without understanding her true intentions.
She was willing to suffer through the humiliation of slapping herself and having her hair cut off. She did these things not for herself but for the ideals that she held in her heart, to fulfil the wishes of the greedy people around her.
Her eventual death was an escape. An escape from the period of time that couldn’t tolerate her views but she still died an unfair death. The cause of her death was essentially other people forcefully placing their opinion, their emotions and their ideals upon her, weighing her down. The way she died only amplifies the selfishness and greed of the other characters.
As we can see, these characters are themselves exciting enough but the depth of this film is in that it doesn’t make a commentary as to what’s right or wrong. It just tells a story. In every scene, we see a little of ourselves. After all, there is always a little bit of selfishness and greed in human nature. This film is like a mirror, it lets us to have a proper look at ourselves to see if there was a point in our lives where maybe we’ve done something we shouldn’t have? and If so, the film shows us that, if we continue like that, how our lives could end up.
For anyone who’s not seen it yet, I strongly recommend the film and I’d be interested in hearing your views so please get in touch.
See you next week.