SYNOPSIS: Four school buddies — a director, a temp worker, an insurance salesman and a paper craftsman — grapple with unfulfilled dreams amid middle age ennui.
Huang Hsin-Yao’s follow up to The Great Buddha+ is yet another macabre, shapeless narrative dramady with Huang being the narrator of his own film. The opening already tells you briefly what to expect from Classmates Minus as Huang strangely laments about colour aesthetics, aspect ratio and the boss of his production company in his deadpan voice.
Huang’s sophomore feature-length movie is about four middle-age friends who mostly spend their time together playing poker and drinking bubble tea. Perhaps Huang is their fifth classmate as the camera often panned to him as in the voice. Could it be a story that is based on Huang’s own experiences in life? No one knows. Anyway, there’s Tom (Shih Ming-Shuai), a director wannabe but is currently making ends meets by shooting sleazy commercials. Fan Man (Chen Jen-Shuo) is an insurance salesman that is frustrated with his job and cowardice boss. Tin Can (Nadow Lin), a household registration officer who accidentally stumbled upon his school beauty, Minus (Ada Pan), now a sex worker living in a dilapidated unit. Last but not least, Blockage (Liu Kuan-Ting), a man who stutters and owns a small business making paper effigies while taking care of his bedridden grandmother.
There’s no particular conformity in Huang’s story. It can be occasionally somber and it can even be funny the next minute liked the appearance of a church whose overall décor laughingly feels more liked a Chinese temple. Similar to The Great Buddha+, it doesn’t really have a plot or climax to talk about. Damn, it doesn’t even have a satisfactory conclusion so be warned. For some reason, it also contains a supernatural subplot to it. Blockage has the ability to “see” and “communicate” with the deceased, helping them to fulfill their last wish if possible. Even famed Japanese porn star, Taka Kato makes an appearance in one of Tin Can’s dreams. Who says supernatural and porn can’t be in the same picture?
Huang turns to politics shortly with Tom being recruited as a “puppet” for a shady congressman cleverly using the character to make light of the political scene in Taiwan. At the same time, the loose narrative continues to delve on the mid-life crisis of Fan Man and Tin Can with Fan antagonizing the mafia with a low insurance payout and the latter slowly disillusioned with the image of his Goddess. In my opinion, Huang reserved the best touching story arc for Blockage albeit a sad, sardonic outcome for a man with a heart of gold. The main cast members are excellent although you probably only seen Liu Kuan-Ting in My Missing Valentine and Nadow (he won the best supporting actor in the Golden Horse Award for his portrayal of Tin Can) clowning around in variety shows.
Positively speaking, Classmates Minus is a class act on the absurdity of life. The unexpected twist of fate and the mundane expectations of everyday life are seen through the eyes of the four classmates. Four ordinary looking folks that reminds one of either you, me or the guy beside. Again, Huang’s movies are not made for the commercial audiences. It’s frankly a dark comedic film about four socially awkward individuals trying their best to navigate a thing called life.
Review by Linus Tee