Having turned his attention to Dali in China’s Yunnan province, Zhang Yang’s third in a series of documentaries exploring the area Mao Mao Cool (猫猫果考试记, Māo Māo Guǒ Kǎoshì Jì) takes a micro view of the modern society through the trials and tribulations of one little boy, Qu Hongrui, as he tries to pass the eccentric “exam” to graduate from Mao Mao primary school which takes the form of a daylong scavenger hunt leading to an overnight camp at a picturesque river. Perhaps a look at changing educational methods in a system which is often criticised for an over reliance on rote learning and test scores, Zhang’s documentary is also a gentle exploration of the art of growing up as Hongrui finds himself at loss for a way forward when he discovers that he cannot simply insist on having his own way.
When we first meet Hongrui, he’s on the first of his tasks which involves a trip to the local market where he is charged with shopping for the various vegetables on his list to be used later in the day. Though he is accompanied by an “observer” to make sure he’s never in any immediate danger or causing trouble to others, the purpose of the test is to force Hongrui to act independently, teaching him how to interact with shopkeepers, manage his money, and shop for himself. When he’s got everything on his list, he’s supposed to go to the next checkpoint and have his “passport” stamped so he can proceed to the next stage.
That’s when his problems begin. The next stage is a rock climbing challenge in which the children are supposed to venture up a climbing wall and retrieve a flag with the letter they’ve been assigned. Hongrui, however, seems to be more afraid than most of the other kids and finds the wall a confusing challenge despite frequent instructions and words of support from below. Eventually he bursts into tears and begins screaming to be let down but eventually composes himself enough to be able to complete the task successfully. That’s something of a pattern which will be repeated. It seems that Hongrui isn’t very popular with his peers and is regarded as a crybaby, one girl eventually asking him “why do you like to cry so much?” after getting fed up with one of his angry episodes.
The same thing happens again during the next challenge when he’s placed in a group with four girls and asked to blend the juices of the vegetables he collected to create new colours and make a group painting. Some of the kids want to make a blue colour and the others pink. After a quick look around the room shows them most of the other groups have gone with blue the girls lean towards pink, which upsets Hongrui to the extent that he runs back out to the examiner complaining “We’ve got a massive schism over colours”. Every time Hongrui encounters a problem, he tries to run to the grownups to sort it out, but the examiners like the observers aren’t permitted to get involved. These exercises are about socialisation and harmonious living. They’re supposed to teach the kids how to compromise and work out their differences peacefully so they can work as a team, but Hongrui still has fairly underdeveloped interpersonal skills and makes frequent mistakes when it comes to negotiating with his teammates. When he comes back from speaking with the examiner, the girls have already found a solution on their own, making a pretty purple colour that suits everyone equally.
Hongrui’s rage and frustration lead him to make unwise decisions, telling the teacher he wants to leave the group because the girls wouldn’t listen to him even if it means he won’t get a badge for this task, only relenting when the examiner explains the entire group will fail if he leaves so his friends won’t get their lunch either. He runs into a similar problem when he’s supposed to put a puzzle together as a clue to the next checkpoint but discovers that he’s lost a piece and concludes that another girl who has far more pieces than she needs must have picked it up. The girl insists the piece was in her pack to begin with and is therefore “hers” so she won’t help him, which proves very challenging to Hongrui who feels he’s been unfairly treated. He tries to appeal to the examiners again but they aren’t allowed to help, his observer explaining that he needs to learn to negotiate with others on his own. Sadly, though it appears not to benefit her in any way to hold on the puzzle piece, the girl continues to refuse to surrender it, perhaps irritated by Hongrui’s “accusation” that she took it from him, and eventually leaves him stranded, unable to move on the next task.
This however a primary school exam so happily Hongrui is able to continue on his journey though it might be debatable how much he’s actually learnt. Crying hot, rage-fuelled tears in the car apparently unashamed to be so emotional in front of another girl in the same position who is increasingly exasperated by his “childishness”, Hongrui is reminded that he needs to learn to control his emotions as he grows up, but does at least seem to calm down enough to cheerfully make his way towards the finish line. The kids are, by and large, alright as they learn how to live in the world and with each other, overcoming their problems together and having fun along the way.
Mao Mao Cool is represented by Fortissimo Films.