Senior Year (2005) Movie Review

Senior Year (2005) Movie PosterScreening at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival.

Although high school students in the West may think they have it tough, the pressure and hardships they face are simply nothing when compared to the trials of their Chinese peers, where the university entrance exam is an event of life defining significance. As a result, there have been a number of films made on the subject, the most popular and highly regarded of which is Guangzhou based director Zhou Hao’s documentary “Senior Year”. Since being shot in 2005, the film has enjoyed great success at home and abroad, including winning the Award for Best Documentary at the Hong Kong International Festival in 2006, and now finally comes to the UK, screening at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival in London.

The film focuses on a class of 78 students at No. 1 High School in Wuping, in western Fujian Province, who are in their final year and preparing for the all-important university entrance exam. The 17-18 year olds mainly come from the surrounding rural areas, and are working not just for themselves and to escape a life of farming, but for their families. As the year passes and the exam draws nearer, the film follows the teenagers as they struggle to combine their studies with defining their own identities, all the while watched over by their teacher, carer, guard and confidant, Wang Jinchun, who himself is under intense pressure to ensure they succeed.

It’s easy to see why “Senior Year” has remained so popular, as it’s a superb, humanitarian piece of documentary film making that feels utterly real throughout. The Chinese education system makes for a fascinating subject no matter where the viewer is from, and Zhou Hao does a near perfect job of capturing the ruthless manner in which it trains and processes students, pushing them harder and harder towards their goal. Their environment is unbelievably harsh and the pressure and stress they are under are constant, with almost every moment of their time being strictly controlled, inside and outside of the classroom as they are bombarded with propagandist and near-political rhetoric (“Study Hard! Move Ahead! Be Patriotic!”).

Although this in itself makes “Senior Year” a compelling watch, its real strength lies in the way in which Zhou Hao’s achieves an amazing, seemingly effortless intimacy with the students, the film striking an impressive balance between observational distance and surprising tenderness. Thanks to some great story telling and a well-worked structure, the film moves along at an engaging pace that makes it easy to follow and naturalistic, the students’ various personalities gradually coming through. This makes the film all the more involving, charting their budding romances, minor acts of rebellion and other typical teenage acts, reminding the viewer that they are real people, with real lives and problems aside from the terrible pressure placed on them by the mechanical education system. Things do get tough to watch at times as some of them inevitably break down, and the film never shies away from depicting the casualties of what teacher Wang Jinchun calls a “war without gunfire”.

It’s actually Wang Jinchun who holds not only the class, but ultimately the film together, and emerges as its strongest and interesting character. Sharing the burden of pressure with his students, he is a constant presence throughout, not only being there to push them onwards, but to offer support and to help them with personal problems and issues with their parents. He also provides the film with some very valuable moments of humour, and through his obvious care for his charges ensures that it never feels like a mere anti-Chinese education system expose.

“Senior Year” is more than deserving of its classic status, and is likely to remain the final word on the subject for the foreseeable future. Immaculately constructed and directed by Zhou Hao, it’s a moving, shocking and highly entertaining film which really should be required viewing for anyone with even just a passing interest in modern China.

Zhou Hao (director)