The Chinese farce “Mr. Donkey” is unapologetically broad, with the kind of one-note performances and jolly score that may exasperate as many viewers as they delight. Aside from some heavier turns in its second half, the movie is mostly light and sweet; but it definitely won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Writer-directors Zhou Shen and Liu Lu (adapting their own play) set the film in a rural village in the early ’40s, where a group of idealistic academics run a school. To raise funds, the teachers trick the government into paying a salary to their local pack animal. When a bureaucrat arrives, the faculty scrambles to find someone who can pretend to be this “Mr. Donkey.”
What follows is, at first, fairly predictable. Stuck with a shy, uneducated laborer to play act as an English professor, the heroes do their best to keep the deception going by misdirecting their boss. But the ruse works too well, and soon the fake Mr. Donkey has become integral — and disruptive — to the team’s larger mission.
As a comedy, “Mr. Donkey” is loud and blunt, full of prolonged scenes where people sputter lies. When the plot becomes more melodramatic, the characters’ simplicity makes their bad choices seem meaner.
Still, Shen and Lu actually have a lot to say about class divides and Western influence in a pre-Cultural Revolution China. “Mr. Donkey” is deeply flawed but also fascinating. There’s a good story here, woven between the thudding jokes.
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: AMC Atlantic Times Square 14, Monterey Park