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How “Mr. Donkey” Became One of the Best Chinese Films of 2016

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My Own Private Cinema is a monthly RADII column that focuses on impactful and inspiring films from China’s cinema history.

Yes, we’ll admit, there is a burro in the lesser-known Chinese film Mr. Donkey, but the film is so much more than that — serving as a metaphor for modern society, with raw humanity at its core.

Mr. Donkey falls into the cinematic genre of black humor and tells the story of three faculty members at a village school who try to pass off a donkey as an English teacher to get more funding from the local government. When government officials come to visit Mr. Donkey and audit candidates for a fellowship, the school recruits a coppersmith to stand in for the jackass.

Despite limited financing, Mr. Donkey became one of the best-performing Chinese films in 2016 on the Chinese mainland — although international audiences have been slower to catch on. Though the entire movie is available on YouTube, it has only garnered a little more than 1 million views over the past four years, likely due to the lack of an award-winning director or high-profile actors.

A Black Horse (…or Donkey)

The story was conceived in 2009 and became a hit stage play in 2012. Later, Zhou Shen and Liu Lu, both directors and screenwriters for the play, wanted to adapt the script into a movie to reach a wider audience.

“We wanted to make Mr. Donkey a movie that everyone from cleaning ladies to academic professors can watch,” Zhou writes on Quora-like platform Zhihu. “You have to make it fun to watch before hoping it’s touching. It’s okay even if it’s not touching. As long as it made the audience laugh and left them amazed, it’s worth the ticket.”

Due to funding issues, it took Zhou and Liu four years to finally screen the film in cinemas. It was their first-ever movie.

The creative duo decided to use the stage actors from the play instead of hiring big-name celebrities to control the film’s quality. That decision scared away many investors, and they were forced to launch production using their savings.

Luckily, Taiwanese-born cinematographer Jong Lin, best known for his work on director Ang Lee’s early films, and award-winning Taiwanese film editor Ching-Sung Liao, came on board and brought more resources to the project.

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Despite the backing of some heavy-hitters, Zhou and Liu’s inexperience in filmmaking left some viewers criticizing the movie as being “not cinematic enough.”

“The plot takes an abrupt turn in the second half of the film, extremely altering the characters’ personalities,” reads a film review published by state-owned media Guangming Daily. “The approach of weak motivation plus strong action is hard for audiences to accept.”

These criticisms, however, did not stop Mr. Donkey from becoming a dark horse at the box office and one of the best-rated Chinese films of the year. According to director Zhou, the film brought in 60 million yuan (9.27 million USD) in its first three days in theaters, and its final gross at the box office totaled 174 million yuan.

The movie has a score of 8.3 out of 10 with 778,204 ratings on the Chinese rating site Douban.

“No matter what people say, they can’t replicate such a script and movie. Many Chinese films are mediocre and fall far behind it,” reads the top-upvoted comment on the film’s Douban page.

Don’t Cry for My Joke

Though the story takes place in 1942 in the Republic of China, the plot and the social issues it reveals can be applied to anytime.

“The material is derived from what Liu Lu and I saw and heard in daily life. We hope to discuss with our audience our thoughts on human nature through this film,” Zhou writes.

The movie starts as a lighthearted comedy, but it turns into a tragedy as the plot develops. This progression may come as a surprise to some viewers, but it really shouldn’t. After all, the movie’s slogan is, “I’m telling you a joke, try not to cry.”

mr. donkey poster

“I’m telling you a joke, try not to cry,” is the movie’s slogan

The story showcases and satirizes the complexities and weaknesses of humanity, especially intellectuals. The intention of building the village school is to educate the “greedy, ignorant, cowardly, and selfish” countryfolk, as it says in the film. But ironically, those ambitious teachers are unable to overcome these flaws either. As one of the teachers says in the movie:

“Maybe it isn’t the farmers who need education the most in this country.”

From the beginning of the film, it’s clear that every faculty member appropriates Mr. Donkey’s salary, which is supposed to serve as supplemental school funding.

The headmaster borrows some funds to fix his eyeglasses, teacher Pei Kuishan uses the donkey’s money to pay for dentures, teacher Zhou Tienan buys himself some fitness equipment, and teacher Zhang Yiman spends some on clothing.

Zhang is the most fascinating character in the movie. The role won actress Ren Suxi the Youth Film Handbook Award 2016 for ‘Best New Actress,’ and a nomination for ‘Best Actress in a Leading Role’ at the 17th Chinese Film Media Awards.

Mr. Donkey Ren Suxi

Mr. Donkey won Ren Suxi the Youth Film Handbook Award 2016 for ‘Best New Actress’

Zhang aspires to attain freedom and beauty. Her long curly hair and neat qipao dress are representative of her charms.

Zhang’s first appearance in the movie is standing in front of the mirror trying on a new piece of clothing. In one memorable scene, she tosses flakes of garlic skin in the air, simulating flower peddles floating on the wind.

mr donkey garlic rain

In this memorable scene, Zhang tosses pieces of garlic skin in the air

Freedom for Zhang essentially means being in charge of her own body. She has the free will to mingle with whoever she chooses without committing to a relationship.

“I am promiscuous, and I like it. I’m happy this way. I want to live like this,” Zhang says to Pei when he confesses his love to her. “I just want to be myself. I finally found a place where I can just be me. So just leave me be.”

However, the downside of her freedom is that Zhang stands against mainstream morality and sometimes hurts others’ feelings, which ultimately sabotages her. In one notable example, Zhang volunteers to sleep with the coppersmith to convince him to pretend to be Mr. Donkey.

mr.donkey sex

Zhang seduces the tradesman to convince him to stand in for the jackass teacher

The headmaster isn’t against the idea and even persuades other school staffers to accept it. “Have the bigger goal in mind and don’t dwell on the details,” he says in the film.

Pei, who was in love with Zhang, or the woman he imagines Zhang to be, can’t accept that she slept with the tradesman and becomes cruel to her. He also develops a heartless approach to everything except money.

When the coppersmith’s wife comes to the school to make a scene, Pei pressures Zhang to admit her misdeeds. The headmaster also begs Zhang to apologize so that they can continue to get paid for Mr. Donkey.

Zhang eventually comes clean, and the coppersmith tells his wife to leave. But when the teachers try to kick the tradesman out of the school, he flies into a rage and Zhang is forced to pay a price to keep up the charade. For the coppersmith to continue acting as Mr. Donkey, he demands that she humiliate herself by slapping herself in the face in front of everyone and shaving her head.

The loss of independence and beauty drives her crazy. The freedom Zhang thought she owned turns out to be imaginary — she is not in control of her body, not even her precious hair. Tragically, her abuse at the hands of powerful men leads her to take her own life.

Intrigued? Watch the full film here.

All images via IMDb

Lu Zhao
Lu Zhao is a bilingual and multimedia journalist with a focus on human interest and social issues. Her work has appeared in USA Today, UPI, SupChina, Pandaily, Chicago Reporter, and other publications.