|The film A Class of One, starring Sun Haiying and 9-year-old Wang Naixun, reveals the pain and struggle of a group of vulnerable youngsters in rural China. [Photo provided to China Daily]|
When director Li Junlin read the news that the number of China's "left-behind" children was estimated to have surpassed nine million, the filmmaker recalled his early years as one of them.
It also became the major impetus for him to produce A Class of One, Li's directorial feature debut, which examines the pain and struggle of a group of vulnerable youths seen from the perspective of a countryside schoolteacher, who has devoted his life to rural education.
In the 106-minute movie, the protagonist child's father dies in an accident while laboring in a city, prompting his mother, who is no longer able to bear her poverty-stricken life, to also leave home.
The local teacher, portrayed by award-winning actor Sun Haiying, infuses the child's miserable life with hope and warmth, and insists on teaching him right up until his graduation, despite the fact he is the last remaining student at a school facing closure.
A Class of One won several international awards, including the 2016 Special Jury Remi Award at the 49th Worldfest Houston International Film Festival in the United States.
In the same year, the movie was recommended by the country's largest distributor, the China Film Group, to join a program of releases showcasing quality domestic movies overseas. The movie went on general release in Chinese mainland theaters on Tuesday.
For Li, the movie's release was the culmination of a decadelong dream to produce a movie, which he hopes will raise more public awareness about a long-overlooked section of society-rural youngsters who face a lack of proper parenting and love.
Over the past few decades, China has seen a robust growth in its economy, owing in no small part to the efforts of millions of rural laborers who migrate to find work in cities.
This has at the same time created a shared plight for young people in some of China's most poverty-stricken areas, who have been dubbed the "left-behind" children by domestic media.
These migrant workers are forced to leave their children to grow up alone, or with one parent, or with their grandparents in their rural hometowns, often thousands of kilometers away. Expensive transport costs and heavy workloads combine to prevent these parents from returning home very often, with the majority of them making the trip home just once a year.
"I was born in a village. My father went to work in the city when I was young. He only came back once a year. I missed him so much," recalls Li during an interview with China Daily.
A native of Central China's Hunan province, Li stood out among his teenage peers for his painstaking dedication to his studies. After graduating from Hengyang Art Vocational School in 1999, he continued his studies at Beijing Film Academy-a prestigious school that has nurtured some of China's top cinematic talent-between 2002 and 2006.
Since then, Li has developed his interest in filmmaking, becoming a firm admirer of Swedish master Ingmar Bergman and US filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.
"I believe films should be more serious productions that explore social issues, instead of merely providing shallow entertainment," says the 39-year-old filmmaker.
"And I want to tell people about the changes taking place in rural societies and their effects on the people there."
He says he began to write the story of A Class of One in 2006 and had revised it many times.
As is the case of many other arthouse titles, which are notoriously difficult to secure funding for, Li initially failed to raise capital from investors.
A turning point emerged when Sun, the veteran actor known for respected TV dramas like the 2006 hit Jiqing Ranshao De Suiyue (The Years of Burning Passion), gave the nod to play the lead role. Star power then helped to convince investors of the project's worth.
"Sun is an excellent and noble actor. He said he was touched by the script and would be willing to shoot the film for reduced pay," Li recalls.
Except for Sun, the 9-year-old Wang Naixun and several supporting roles, the rest of the cast was played by locals of the shooting location in a village in southern Jiangxi province's Ganzhou city.
"It makes the roles seem as realistic as everyday life, as all the actors were playing themselves," says Li.
Despite the movie struggling to earn a lucrative slice of the blockbuster-dominated market, the film has gained popular acclaim with moviegoers and scholars alike.
Sha Guang, a Peking University-educated poet, says the movie tempted her into the movie theater though she has seldom visited a cinema in the past three decades.
"I was deeply moved by the teacher's spirit of sacrifice and the portrayal of a lower-class intellectual struggling to keep a hold on his faith and dreams," she says.
(Source: China Daily)