by Lindsay Wong
‘Distinction’ was the second title screened at this year’s MINDS Film Festival on January 16th at Shaw Theatres Lido. Like the rest of the movies screening at the festival, Distinction focuses on the theme of intellectual disabilities a special education needs school. Distinction was nominated for the categories of Best Actress and Best Original Film Song at the 38th Hong Kong Film Awards.
Distinction highlights the different social issues that plague Hong Kong’s education system and the lives of the intellectually disabled. Even though it is set in Hong Kong, these social issues can extend to the rest of East Asia and Singapore. The film mostly takes place in a special education needs school, where Grace Tsui (Jo Koo), a music teacher, is trying to stage a musical with her students, who all have varying intellectual disabilities. Regular students Zoey (Jennifer Yu) and Ka-ho (Kaki Sham) help out with the musical for their own personal reasons and form an unlikely bond through Ka-long, Ka-ho’s little brother at the school with an intellectual disability.
Each character represents a different archetype. Zoey is an underachiever at an elite top school, while Ka-ho is a troublemaker on the verge of expulsion. Both students have creative assets, but their parents want them to succeed academically instead of creatively. This is an issue that many students face in East Asia as academic success is more highly regarded in society and parental pressures are prominent. However, participating in the musical made Zoey and Ka-ho realise their full creative potential. By the end of the film, Zoey and Ka-ho decided to pursue their dreams in the arts, despite the fact that their parents are against it.
Grace has been a teacher at this school for eight years but has thought about quitting because of the pressures that come with the job. Teaching students with special needs has taken a mental toll on her and she doesn’t want to have children because she fears that her child could be like her students. This mindset changes after the musical and she goes on her own journey of self-discovery as she befriends her students and helps their parents deal with their intellectually disabled children.
Distinction depicted how teachers, family members and friends interact with children with intellectual disabilities and how their attitudes towards them changed after a series of events. Ka-ho had a change of heart and changed the way he acted towards his little brother after he realised that his parents don’t take Ka-long to public events because they don’t want people talking about him. Watching Ka-long’s relationship with his brother and parents improve was beautiful to witness on-screen and made the audience tear up.
The best part of Distinction was seeing Ka-long’s family embrace him after seeing his participation in the musical. It was interesting to see the exploration of social issues surrounding students – and the intellectually disabled – being played out in an East Asian context, which Singaporean audiences could also relate to.