After Class is a chilling look into what desperation can do to people. Eight-year-old Su Min, played by Yiyi Sun, is the daughter of a brutally hardworking woman (Youfeng Zhang) whose janitor position at the local school allows her to barely meet her and Su Min’s needs. With a poor grasp on the poverty she lives in, Su Min begs her mother to attend the school where she sees all of her friends learning and playing without her. Unable to live with the guilt of not being able to offer her daughter this core part of childhood, the mother does everything in her power to put Su Min in school. When she soon realizes that hard work isn’t enough in the immobile society she lives in, she turns to criminal behavior that ultimately costs her the most important thing in her life, Su Min.
With director/writer Charles Xiuzhi Dong’s skilled character development, After Class gives a glimpse into the universal fault of not knowing you’ve gone too far until its too late. Su Min’s mother reaches a point where she loses her grasp on morality and doesn’t recognize herself. This turning point is visualized by an intense scene where she weeps in the bathroom while forcefully splashing water on her face, as if doing so will wash away the shame, regret, and pain that will forever be etched into her appearance. Zhang’s performance brings Dong’s character development to life. Every hardship her character has gone through is reflected in the subtle furrow in her brows and the slow exhale of uneasy breaths held in for too long. The most poignant part of her performance is seen after she washes her face in the bathroom. After an accumulation of hopeless weeps, she lets out one gut-wrenching sob, letting the audience know that this story is doomed to have a tragic ending.
Although the film and its ending followed a rather predictable storyline, Stefan Nachmann’s profound cinematography gave the film the added visual magnetism that it needed. Soft from the hazy sunshine and muted with a grey color palette, the imagery perfectly complements the dreary subject matter. With his technical expertise, Nachmann’s camera work creates a sense of distance throughout the film. The long and wide shots echo how distant and detached Su Min feels from the world as she misses out on the everyday life her peers live. The wide establishing shots also emphasize how much bigger and daunting the world feels when you’re at a disadvantage. There is a snail-paced panning out seen in several shots that act as a personification of the mother’s efforts that seem to push her further and further away from a life of opportunity and financial stability.
Through its vivid cinematic depiction of struggle and despair, After Class makes a point that cannot be ignored. Education is a privilege. This social commentary transcends cultures and generations, it resonates with all audiences and serves as a stark reminder of the privileges many take for granted.