The director of “The Great Buddha +,” an award-winning Taiwanese crime dramedy, takes a stab at dark farce for his second feature film. He thought it’d be funny to title it “Classmates Minus,” as he’s made a dark and deadpan director-narrated comedy of four high school classmates who hit various walls and change directions in their lives when they hit their 40s.
Scattered laughs and quaint peeks into the culture adorn its two hours+ running time. Even allowing for cultural differences in the idea of pacing in a screen comedy, “Classmates Minus” is slow going. But here’s a taste of what you get if you go down this South Taiwan rabbit hole.
Writer-director Hsin-yao Huang introduces us to a sad, solitary stutterer nicknamed “Blockage” (Kuan-Ting Liu) who makes paper houses, cars, etc, to adorn a funeral pyre and let the deceased realize unfulfilled dreams of their lives in a dream house marking their death. Fan-Man (Jen-Shuo Cheng) is a frustrated office drone, a claims adjuster with an big insurer. The lump they all nicknamed “Tin Can” (Na-Dou Lin) is a lonely local field worker who helps find housing for the disadvantaged.
And Tom (Ming-Shuai Shih), unlike the others, is married — a filmmaker cooling his heels and learning his craft by making TV commercials. His wife (Zhi-Ying Zhu) indulges his dream career, and his nighttime talking-in-his-sleep “direction.”
“Action! FOCUS! Cut!”
“A never-fulfilled movie dream can quickly become a nightmare.”
The opening minutes of “Classmates Minus” aim to set a tone, a tracking shot following a filmmaker on a motor scooter, narrated by another filmmaker. It’s an homage to Italian Nanni Moretti’s “Caro Diario.”
As we follow these four friends’ drift through their daily lives, some scenes stand out and a few situations connect. But touching or droll, satiric or snide, the whole never really came together for me.
Tin Can almost ODs on diet pills, and stumbles into his high school crush, a beautiful woman who never knew he existed then, needs a house now and is getting by as a hooker.
Blockage lives with and takes care of his granny, and when she takes a turn for the worse, he sees a vision of the Golden Boy and Jade Girl, accompanied by Old Li — spirits who are harbingers of death. He doesn’t let that keep him from hiring a matchmaker and hoping he can get out a work or three that impresses the right woman.
Fan-Man heads towards a marriage and struggles with a dead-end job, where “doing the right thing” and “doing right” are distinctions the company makes and punishes him for not grasping.
And filmmaker Tom is abruptly recruited to run for a corrupt congressman’s seat, mentored by that congressman as he mounts a campaign and struggles to get some control of it himself and hand onto his marriage as well.
The film’s most farcical moment includes a vision of a Taiwanese action hero, who soothes nerves over a communication barrier with “You can just speak Chinese. There will be subtitles below.”
Moments like that, some snide remarks about Taiwan’s “chosen by heaven” founder-leader, General Chiang Kai-Shek and cynical politicking that interrupts’ one friend’s wedding and another’s funeral, point to a sunnier, sillier film than Huang manages here.
The characters are interesting enough, the setting and details as well. It’s just that everything one would lump together as “entertainment” is spread out, separated by dead screen time and dull sidebars.
Again, some of this is just different modes of movie-making for different audiences. That said, this was so slow it started to get on my nerves.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, violence, sex, profanity
Cast: Ming-Shuai Shih, Jen-Shuo Cheng, Kuan-Ting Liu, Na-Dou Lin, Zhi-Ying Zhu, Lotus Wang
Credits: Scripted, directed and narrated by Hsin-yao Huang. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:02