Charting a love story that spans two decades, Frant Gwo’s “My Old Classmate” is a Chinese campus romance that manages to make the genre’s most time-worn themes feel as fresh as spring water. Alternately cute as a button and unapologetically melodramatic, the film may be uneven in tone, but its protagonists’ sentiments ring true at every life phase, triggering the collective memories of China’s “post-’80s” generation. The pic has become the country’s biggest domestic sleeper hit this season, having grossed $51.2 million in 10 days, and Chinese-speaking markets like Taiwan and Singapore may respond with greater enthusiasm than usual for a mainland film.
Pinching a bit of libidinous humor from Giddens’ “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” plus a dash of period nostalgia from Vicky Zhao’s “So Young” and Peter Chan’s “American Dreams in China” (both of which also involve China’s study-abroad craze), “My Old Classmate” is like a mutt spawned from higher-brow purebreds. Yet the film’s lack of artistic pretension — and its clever use of truisms like “Reality ultimately defeats us,” which has since become a popular catchphrase at home — are also the source of its mass appeal. The Chinese title, which means “You Who Sat Next to Me in Class,” derives from a beloved 1995 folk song (sung by Lao Lang and written by the film’s producer/co-scribe Gao Xiaosong) that encapsulates the film’s elegy to lost youth and faded love.
The story is narrated by Lin Yi (Lin Gengxin, “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon”), who, at the pic’s start in 2013, appears to be living every Chinese person’s American dream as a New York IT exec. When he receives the wedding invitation of his old flame Xiaozhi (Zhou Dongyu), he returns to Beijing for the first time in 10 years. Back at primary school in 1993, transfer student Xiaozhi (Zhang Zifeng, a dead ringer for Zhou), is assigned to sit next to Lin (Li Jiacheng, cheeky), initiating a meet-cute sweet enough to rot your teeth. (Lin’s boyish gallantry guarantees brownie points from distaff audiences.)
The film’s centerpiece and longest sequence is set in a university in Fujian, where Lin and Xiaozhi begin dating for real; as usual, she lays down all the rules, even including how many minutes per day they can be lovers. Their hotel trysts become Sisyphean ordeals for Lin, who keeps getting timed out before reaching first base. Viewers used to Hollywood’s frat-boy farces may roll their eyes at such chaste dalliances, but the characters’ innocence is precious not least because it’s short-lived, as the consequences of desire manifest themselves later.
Running through the narrative is a worldview that places individual experience before national concerns: Politics and historic events thus form a mere backdrop for the protags’ single-minded pursuit of love, as when the 1999 anti-American demonstrations offer Lin a pretext to hold Xiaozhi’s hand. Elsewhere, the film sometimes digresses in a bid to cater to male auds, following the juvenile but tame hijinks of Lin’s four college chums; their quirkiness feels trite and superficial, while the thesps have hardly any presence. The only endearing one is Tom (Michael Sui), a Beijing-born Eurasian who chats up girls by posing as a gormless exchange student; his rivalry with Lin illustrates the hangups Chinese often have about foreigners, but their differences are resolved in a droll, amiable manner.
The final act, set in the present, is driven by volatile swings from despondency to passion to mellow insight. Like “So Young” and “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” the film concludes with a reunion and a wedding, but Gwo keeps several plot possibilities in the air, likely to have viewers holding their breath all the way to the altar.
Looking not a day older than when she debuted in Zhang Yimou’s “Under the Hawthorn Tree” (2010), and no less ethereal, 22-year-old Zhou beguiles with a coyness that doesn’t seem prudish or affected; even when Xiaozhi makes Lin jump through hoops to date her, she never appears bossy or manipulative. Described as “a blank sheet” by Zhang Yimou when he first scouted her, Zhou projects a full-fledged personality here, but is still awkward when it comes to displaying emotional duress. Combining boyish charm with cockiness, Lin Gengxin coasts through his role, expressing passion with fearless honesty, and presenting his grown-up, culturally displaced identity as recognizably different from that of his younger self.
Liu Yan’s lensing yields bright, colorful visuals, while top Hong Kong editor Cheung Ka-fai maintains a jaunty tempo without rushing the story. Classrooms and playgrounds, which make up most of the scenery, look realistic but convey no vivid sense of place; even when the action shifts to the south, the ambience of a warm, coastal city seldom comes through. The cheerful score by Mongolian composer Gong Ge’er, who also plays Lin’s classmate, is overshadowed by the continuous recycling of Gao’s theme song on any emotive occasion. Except for the cheesy, low-quality animated sequences, most tech credits are pro.