Note: This review may contain some spoilers.
The lovely Zhou Dongyu (Under the Hawthorn Tree) stars in My Old Classmate (同桌的妳) alongside Lin Gengxin (Black and White: Dawn of Justice), to bring us the touching and tragic tribulations of two young lovers as told by director Frant Gwo, in an intriguing take on the traditional “coming of age” story.
While at first My Old Classmate appears to be just another sappy romance film, in reality the story is tragic and heavy-hearted; in many ways, My Old Classmate is the “truest” love story ever produced, as it does not make any serious effort to provide a cheerful and happy respite from the burdens of the world. Rather, My Old Classmate is filled with turning points that challenge and threaten an innocent relationship.
Zhou Dongyu portrays the beautiful but innocent and all-around “good-girl” character Zhou Xiaozhi, who though initially reluctant to get involved with her troublemaking deskmate Lin Yi, ultimately falls in love with him. Zhou’s father raised her with the dream of attending Stanford University, and he sees Lin’s role in her life as endangering that dream; however, this motivates the otherwise poor student Lin to study hard and try to make it to the United States, so that Zhou and Lin can remain together.
As young people. we often have an unbridled sense of optimism and hope about the future, and the innocent belief that if we chase our dreams hard enough, we can accomplish anything. “True love always finds a way,” we are told. “Follow your dreams and you’ll be successful,” they said.
My Old Classmate shatters that façade. From our dream careers and how we envision our professional milestones being accomplished, to our “first loves” and the naive belief that they will materialize into life-long relationships, in the real world the path to success is often riddled with potholes and twists and turns; in reality, most people never reach success, and when they pass their lives fade into obscurity and irrelevance. My Old Classmate presents the stark reality of life – that it is filled with misery and hopelessness, and just when you believe you are able to grasp the slightest thread of success in your life, it slips away and you are left to fall to a new low point of depression – one you never believed that you could fall to.
And when you fall to this new low point, you reminisce about how wonderful the lives of yesteryear were; just as Lin describes in My Old Classmate, memory does not always tell the truth – past failures are obscured by past successes, while a sense of bitter nostalgia and desire for the “simpler” times of the past takes over in a wave of sorrow and grief. We then often lie to ourselves, and attempt to form an explanation to convince ourselves that our lives aren’t all that bad; because hey – I didn’t make it to McKinsey or Bain, but I’m still having an impact on the world at a second-tier consulting firm! That closet for which I spend a third of my paycheck on is totally a penthouse “within the second ring road!” The convenience store around the corner is certainly a triple-Michelin star restaurant! Yeah, my life is awesome!
My Old Classmate is a story told through flashbacks of Lin as he journeys from his office in New York to Beijing, and discusses the key turning points in his life and relationship with Zhou. When watching My Old Classmate one has to carefully observe what happens in Lin and Zhou’s innocent, youthful lives, and track how the same motifs carry forward to the “present day” – whether it’s the graduating friends celebrating over drinks contrasted with the depressed drinks of mutual understanding when they are thirty, or my favorite scene in the film, the contrasting opening scene, where Lin describes his life in New York as one of being shuttled around in limos, working at a prestigious firm with a wonderful boss, and having a fiancée that loves and adores him. Towards the end of the film, the same description of Lin is given, but the true images of his life are presented – and the differences could not be more jarring.
Eventually, Lin succumbs to the realities of his life and admits – his name is “Lin Yi [Lin ‘Complete’] – the same ‘complete’ as ‘complete loser’, the same ‘complete’ as ‘completely worthless’, the same ‘complete’ as ‘complete mess’.” He admits that in his ten years in New York, he has failed in both his dreams to build a bright future for himself and spend his life with his love, Zhou.
My Old Classmate does not attempt to whitewash the realities of life and failure. Instead, it celebrates the misery and drudgery that all of us go through, and thus is able to reach deep into the souls of its viewers and draw true connections to all of our own lives. After all – as children, didn’t we all dream of changing the world? Didn’t some of us want to build the next Microsoft? Well, we just weren’t smart enough – we just didn’t have the right circumstances, the right background, or the right opportunities. Didn’t we all have that girlfriend we thought we would spend the rest of our lives with? Well, we just didn’t end up going to the same university – something in our lives just changed. And now you have to see them happy and running off with another man, while you are sitting eating your misery ramen in a cold and miserable island that makes you long for the warm summers of your childhood. The Disney fairy tale of living “happily ever after” is a blatant lie – there is no Prince Charming, ladies.
In My Old Classmate, Lin promises to bring Zhou to a place “where only the two [of them] are.” The film shows us that the only place where only the dream of the two of them existing together in loving harmony is the past – in memories, not in realities.
My Old Classmate (Chinese: 同桌的妳)—China. Directed by Frant Gwo. First released April 2014. Running time 1hr 38min. Starring Zhou Dongyu and Lin Gengxin.
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