Film Reviews

“A Tribute to Middle-Aged Classmates” – Film Review: Classmates Minus

Sharon Hsieh

The Golden Horse Award-winning Director Shin-Yao Huang presents another tragedy-comedy that documents the bittersweet life of middle-aged Taiwanese men in lower-middle class, after his grand debut success and international recognition in The Great Buddha+ (2017).

It was produced and filmed by another award-winning director, Mong-Hong Chung, whose A Sun (2019) is shortlisted for Academy Award for Best International Feature Film at the moment, and is also available on Netflix. Many talented and beloved Taiwanese-speaking actors appear in the cast, such as Yi-Wen Cheng and Zhi-Ying Zhu (who appeared in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007).

Right from the beginning of the film, the director breaks the fourth wall

Right from the beginning of the film, the director breaks the fourth wall, intervenes with narration, and acknowledges the movie to be autobiographical. It is about four of his now middle-aged high school classmates: an insurance salesman, an unsuccessful yet aspiring director, a part-time contract office worker, and an owner of a traditional paper offering shop. None of them have lived up to the socially dictated model of success at this point of life.

Despite the lack of the director’s own appearance and engagement with the main storylines, the sense of his presence is strong, and his elusive aura of detachment from the plotlines begs the question of whether he is projecting himself in one of the characters, if not all of them, to reminisce his own middle-life conundrums.

The adoption of several interview-like dialogues with the characters also generates a mock-documentary distance. The boundary between reality and fiction is thus trespassed throughout the story, and right to the end of the film, the inconclusive ending seems to deliberately deprive the audience of a definitive closure.

He crosses over, ridicules and blurs the line that defines real life and fictional imagination

This pushes the story of the four classmates to approach the irony, helplessness and angst towards our real life, in a dangerously close manner. The director, quite apparently, does not intend to grant us of a parallel mirroring effect between the characters’ life and the audience’s own, to examine ourselves from a comfortable distance.

He crosses over, ridicules and blurs the line that defines real life and fictional imagination, which confronts the audience with the often-ignored mundane tragedies and absurdities of life around us.

Many Easter Eggs can be found in the form of satirising Taiwanese election culture, such as mock-opera broadcasting with empty political slogans on a shrilling Taiwanese campaign bandwagon, and Taiwanese Ming-Nang homophone wordplay as a foreshadowing device of a main character’s fate (i.e., ‘bullets’ brand on a truck).

The representation of traditional Taiwanese culture of funeral paper offerings (such as building a paper house for the late beloved, to be burnt as a tribute) is cleverly interwoven with the irony of uncontrollable real estate inflation in recent decades. Many aspects of modern-day social issues, and the social limbo of mediocre middle-aged men are in, is mixed in the film in a half-taunting and half-sympathizing tone.

However, unlike the internationally acclaimed The Great Buddha+, with condensed focalisation of the struggling social outcasts, Classmates Minus is susceptible to being defocused, and blends somewhat irrelevant elements into the bundle due to its (possibly) deeply personal nature, such as the somewhat eerie and melodramatic confrontation between a mistress and wife from male gaze perspective.

Shin-Yao Huang’s cinematic performance so far is dazzling

Technical inconsistencies in each frame can also be detected. Whether it is an artistic decision to distort the fourth wall, or simply technical immaturities, is yet to be decided. That said, Shin-Yao Huang’s cinematic performance so far is dazzling, in his capacity to view the absurdity of life through a sardonic yet empathetic lens, which in some way inherits the Taiwanese grass-root spirits. His achievements and contributions to Taiwanese films in the future can be much expected.

Sharon Hsieh

Featured image courtesy of CardMapr via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of @newonnetflixuk via No changes made to these images.

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