An idealistic teacher finds herself questioning her views on education while confronting her traumatic past in Terry Ng Ka-wai’s gentle drama, Pretty Heart (心裏美). Partly a contemplation of the nature of education, the film has some serious questions to ask about the contemporary school system and in its inbuilt inequalities along with the complicated relationships between parents and children while ultimately opting for a kind of balance in which there is room for many kinds of learning.
For Chloe (Jennifer Yu Heung Ying) education shouldn’t just be about passing tests but learning about how to live life, gaining the ability to think critically and enriching one’s existence. But at her school, which is funded by both public and private means, she’s regarded as something of a troublemaker by Mrs. Tsang, the wealthy head of the board who seems to have the headmaster well under her thumb. Mrs. Tsang is so hands on because her son Chi Kit is a pupil though a somewhat indifferent one sure that his money and connections will engineer his success. A small fight breaks out when a young girl, Shu Ting, who comes from an impoverished single parent family, tries to hand out tickets for video lectures by top cram school teacher K.K. Ho with Chi Kit insisting that only the elite who have the means to pay deserve a place in the room.
The incident at once lays bare the fallacy that education is a levelling force enabling social mobility under in meritocracy when kids like Chi Kit will always be able to game the system in ways that those like Shu Ting cannot even if, as Mr. Ho tells another pupil, at the end of the day it’s the effort you put in that counts. What annoys Chloe about the elite cram school with its good-looking teachers and flashy showmanship is its devaluing of education in giving kids tips on how pass exams while telling them that they can safely ignore half of the syllabus to focus on the bits that are most likely appear to on the test paper without actually needing to understand much of what they’re memorising. Defending himself, Ho eventually argues that he merely provides a complementary service intended to run in concert with the kind of education Chole offers which is less geared towards test scores than comprehensive learning.
Yet he also takes Chloe to task for her lack of connection with the kids and image of herself as a teacher pointing out that she has never really bothered to learn much about their lives outside of the classroom. Much of her animosity towards the cram school stems from the fact is it is run by her estranged father whom she assumes to be cynical and unfeeling yet has generated a fatherly relationship with Shu Ting and is doing his best to support her while she contends with difficult family circumstances trying to balance her need to support herself and her mother financially with her education.
Witnessing Ho’s innate kindness to those around him forces Chloe to rethink her preconceptions while accepting that her reserve has sometimes interfered with her intentions as an educator. Re-encountering her father also causes her to revisit longstanding childhood trauma which may in part have been born of a childish misunderstanding she may be better placed to process as an adult woman. As her father says, the most important thing to learn may be the art of forgiveness and it seems that she has been poisoning herself with hate and resentment as manifested in her literal heart problems.
The conclusion that the film comes to is that it’s not all so black and white and perhaps the good comes with the bad. Having begun to deal with her emotional trauma, Chloe seems to have become a better and more engaging teacher committed to helping her students in all aspects of her lives. It may not solve the problems of social inequality in the school system or fix the commodification of education symbolised in the existence of the cram school but does at least seem to generate a shift in the general environment which sees even a relieved Mrs Tsang step back from her elitism. Admittedly a little contrived in its melodramatic narrative, the film nevertheless has its heart in the right place as the melancholy heroine learns a few lessons of her own in dealing with the traumatic past.
Pretty Heart screens in Chicago on Nov.6 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where actress Jennifer Yu Heung Ying will be in attendance to collect her Bright Star Award.
Original trailer (English subtitles)