Math students swirl in The Ark of Mr. Chow

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      Starring Zhou Dongyu. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable.

      “Women hold up half the sky,” as Mao Zedong famously put it. But according to The Ark of Mr. Chow, 53 percent of the population only merits a sliver of blue. Granted, the tale is set in 1998, when Mao had been dead for 22 years and economic reforms were still new. The film is based on experiences—a few years earlier, in fact—of new writer-director Xiao Yang.

      Xiao went through something like the math-minded boot camp depicted in the film, which centres on kids getting ready for a nationwide numbers fest. Here, the fictional Mr. Chow, an almost faceless authority figure well played by Drug War’s versatile Sun Honglei, runs what’s generically translated as “Youth Class”, a subgroup of adolescents (and younger) within a university setting.

      The idea is to prep for an international math competition. Out of all the prodigies in a nation that size, Mr. Chow is able to find precisely one girl to join the competition. This mousy 15-year-old (Zhou Dongyu) is counterpoised against the one other female in the story: a lithe, long-limbed, and mostly silent beauty (Cici Wang) who vamps all the lads. They include a bald country bumpkin (Liu Xilong), a chubby preteen (Li Jia Qi), a handsome delinquent (Wang Yuexin), and an ordinary student whose highly placed mom actually faked his grades.

      Why this is an “ark” is never explained. All the characters, including the taciturn Chow, are polite until they inevitably explode. And the script is far more interested in their interpersonal conflicts than in anything related to school smarts.

      The director’s background in editing and visual effects shows in the baroque execution of the movie, a virtual parade of shock cuts, whirling camera moves, elaborate crane shots, overdressed sets, and computer-enhanced imagery.

      This montage-happy approach works better for TV commercials than for feature films, but it’s impressive enough that I’d still be interested to see what he does next—preferably with a script written by women.