My Old Classmate and But Always are both recent films following the nostalgic trend after the success of So Young and American Dreams in China, but did they succeed, or were they mere capitalistic ventures to ride on the commercial success of their predecessors? Warning: There might be spoilers.
First piece of advice: unless you are a hardcore fan of the cast or general prettiness, then save yourself some money and time and just pick one of the two, (or better yet, none). They are essentially the same movie, packaged to sell but not to tell. The plot goes as follows (feel free to substitute specific characters):
Sometime during the height of their innocence in elementary, Boy and Girl meet. Boy is a rascal, always making trouble in the classroom, while Girl is shy and well-behaved. Boy is immediately attracted to Girl, and Girl finds Boy a nuisance but grows to care for him as well.
The friendship between Boy and Girl continues to grow, and at one point, becomes something more. Boy and Girl consummate their love, and coincidentally or not, hit a home run on their first try, though sadly, their love baby does not. A forced separation then occurs for no sensible reason, usually involving the United States (New York City in particular). After a number of years, Boy becomes successful (to varying degrees), and Girl is involved in another relationship, but both still have lingering feelings. They then reunite and proceed to a tear-jerking ending that is somehow supposedly an insightful reflection on the real lives of the current post-80 generation.
(Disclaimer: the majority of my following tirade focuses on But Always, since My Old Classmate is as a distant, though rather unpleasant memory.)
I will say first off that the cinematography is gorgeous in both films, and in the latter, outstanding. In fact, the crew of But Always spent so much effort to ensure proper lighting that at times I was almost blinded during the film. Unfortunately, the cinematography was perhaps the only redeeming aspect of the two films, which bear a much closer resemblance to a music video or hair commercial than a convincing visual narrative. Granted, I did not mind the 50 close-up shots of Nicholas Tse’s upper torso, but eventually you start asking yourself, “what is the point?”
While So Young and American Dreams in China also veered off on occasion, the two films stayed true to its roots and presented a sensitive and yet brutally honest depiction of the post-80’s generation. What My Old Classmate and But Always managed to achieve, however, was to elicit unified derision from its target audience.
I was sitting in a theater full of kids just like me, Chinese students who came to study abroad, sharing supposedly the same experiences as the characters on screen. Instead of resonating nostalgia, what proceeded were bouts of laughter at the most inopportune moments.
In a way, as a generation, we are witnessing the very process of our personal memories manipulated and commercialized into unrecognizable caricatures. We watched ourselves as we watched An Ran, the female lead played by Gao Yuanyuan, get countless rejections despite her Columbia PhD and labor at menial jobs. We saw our friends as we saw her growing camaraderie with her co-workers. All of that was made pointless in face of her hot and unimaginably rich suitor played by Nicolas Tse, who unexplainably became fluent in English within one year in prison. (Seriously, Tong Dawei should recruit him.)
What should be our proper response to such travesty of our innocence, our tears, our joy, and our growth? Indignation? Apathy? Derision? Most of us in the audience chose laughter. If a film cannot even resonate with the very people it seeks to represent, what hope it has to connect with others? The film ends with its worst offense, especially for American viewers, by rendering what was and remains to be a national tragedy to a tasteless device for cheap melodrama.
China has no dearth of artistic and acting talents. This century alone brought us the jewels of Beijing Bicycle and The Road Home. China also has no shortage of investment and good production companies. But unfortunately for C-movie lovers like myself, the industry is intent on making fast cash by selling even our memories in a flashy and repackaged form.
My final advice, “while visually impressive, steer clear if you are looking for a story, or if you insist, be ready to discover humor in the most unexpected moments.”
I will end with a student-made MV of the classic 90’s song, 同桌的你 My Old Classmate, that inspired the film. Frankly, the 4 min MV did a better job.
And one last question, to those of you who have also seen But Always, am I the only one who’s dying to see Nicolas Tse’s character’s business development strategy?