Film Review: ‘Classmates Minus’ Explores Middle-age Crisis with Dark Comedy and Metafictional Sleight of Hand4 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Four high school buddies — a director, a temp worker, an insurance salesman, and a paper craftsman — grapple with unfulfilled dreams amid middle age ennui.
Director: Huang Hsin-yao
Cast: Cheng Jen-shuo, Liu Kuan-ting, Lin Yu-chih, Shih Ming-shuai, Evelyn Yu-tong Cheng
Language: Mandarin, Minnan
Runtime: 122 minutes
Barely a minute into Classmates Minus, the director Huang Hsin-yao’s voiceover narration announces, in a deep lulling voice, that it has been three years since his first feature-length film, The Great Buddha+. As though it’s perfectly natural and fine for a director to narrate his own film. Even more bizarre things happen within the next minute – the initial black-and-white aesthetics becomes colourised, and the screen ratio aspect stretches from 1:1.85 to 1:2.35. He goes on narrating, complaining about how demanding and perfectionist his production company, Cream Film Productions, is.
The introduction to Classmates Minus is undeniably unique, and begs the question of whether the film is autobiographical or dramatised. My sense is that it’s both, but I’m sure Huang isn’t concerned how critics might categorise his film. All he genuinely wants is to tell a story about four of his high school classmates who, in their thirties and forties, are experiencing a midlife crisis – a story which he is also a part of, although to a small degree.
Amongst his four classmates, we first have Tom (Shih Ming-shuai), who aspires to be a film director, but is waylaid by a sudden political career path to become a congressman, as a pawn for a veteran politician. Then there is Fan Man (Cheng Jen-shuo), a strong-headed and seemingly lazy insurance salesman who can’t seem to get a promotion. We also have Blockage (Liu Kuan-ting), a paper-effigy craftsman who finds it hard to get a girlfriend because of his heavy stutter. And lastly, there is Tin Can (Lin Yu-chih), a household registration officer who discovers that his high school crush, Minus (Pan Hui-ru) has become a sex worker.
Instead of an overarching plot, the film follows each of the classmate’s own distinct lives, capturing how much they change as time passes. Huang focusses primarily on Tom’s political ascent, and it is easy to see why – from a meek, unaccomplished commercial director, he grows into a defiant, almost apathetic politician after being propelled into fame. He is unashamed at crashing Fan Man’s wedding in order to gather more votes, and he even gets into an extramarital affair.
In fact, Tom has become so unlikable to the extent that Huang himself makes a cameo appearance, entering the camera frame to beat up Tom together with Fan Man and Tin Can. It’s not every day that a film breaks the fourth wall since it might seem gimmicky. But Huang does it quite tastefully, equal parts in comedy and tragedy.
If you’re a lover of absurd humour or metafictional elements, then you’re in luck, because this film has plenty of them. Huang’s deadpanned commentary is one such example, such as when he blatantly points out that several supporting characters in the film are played by the same actor. And the characters have some absurdist elements going on in their lives. Even though Blockage’s stutter is so severe that he can only say one or two words, he later managed to find a girlfriend who can understand him perfectly, translating his non-sequiturs into full-length sentences.
But the film is held back by a plodding and loose structure. There is not much tension in each storyline, nor is there anything at stake for the characters as they go about their daily lives. Not even for Tom, whose political ascendency is meaningless to him since he intends to be a film director anyway. The film does end on an emotional high, but by then it might have already lost some impatient viewers’ attention.
That’s not to say that the characters are poorly developed. The lifelessness and existential crisis felt by Huang’s four characters can be keenly felt, although they bleed into the lack of urgency across the film. But it could be that Huang wants his viewers to feel the sense of mundane and aimlessness that his classmates felt in the early 2000s of Taiwan, grappling with the turbulent social and political climate then.
Perhaps this is why Classmates Minus won the Audience Choice Award in the most recent Golden Horse Award. Rich in social and political subtext, and with a brilliant cast of actors that understand Taiwanese perspectives, the film is relatable and popular to Taiwanese viewers. Even so, you don’t need to be Taiwanese to enjoy it. The film is as visionary as it is darkly humorous – the mark of a unique filmmaker who has cemented his visual and storytelling style with only two critically-acclaimed films.
Classmates Minus is now streaming on Netflix.