Reviews Short Narrative

Secrets at the intermissions (2022) – 2 stars

Director: Su Xue

Writer: Su Xue

Cast: Fu Xinyue, Qiao Yiyi, Lin Zi, Chen Linyu, Bai Lu, Albalest

Running time: 20mins

Every now and again I’ll have that nightmare. You probably know the one. However, much time passes since escaping the confines of secondary education, I have a dream I’m back in high school – revisiting a moment of academic failure, or some great incident of social embarrassment, in front of my giggling classmates. Each time I awake to breathe a huge sigh of relief. I’m an adult, I don’t have to go to school. Thank fuck for that.

But as much as I would like to enjoy my hard-earned freedom from the tyranny of maths homework and prayers at assembly, another force has emerged into my life – one which is also determined to drag me back to those hopeless corridors, ice-cold modular class rooms, and structurally unstable exam halls of my youth. Yes, I understand that every film student is told ‘write what you know’ before undertaking their early projects; but Jesus Christ could you take that a little less literally?

It’s not that I have an inherent hatred of films set in secondary education (Nicholas Decosta’s Poo remains the most gloriously puerile comedy film I have ever seen), or that I don’t see the need for filmmakers to tell stories about those people. Indeed, seeing culture which represents the trials and tribulations you go through at that formative age can be a crucial component in surviving it. But the way so many films address the subject matter is so crushingly unimaginative and starved of original thought that they cannot fulfil that function. All that is left is whiny, exploitative melodrama.

It feels unfair to single out Su Xue’s Secrets at the intermissions for all of that. Her work is by no means the worst example of ‘student-on-student’ mistreatment I have seen. But a line needs to be drawn somewhere.

The central story sees boarding school student Li Guo (Fu Xinyue) become a pariah, when it emerges a “homework” assignment from her teacher has seen her spying on her classmates and reporting on their shortcomings. As she is shunned by her former best friend and picked on by other girls in her year, the film soon devolves into a tedious and unchallenging depiction of giggling young women being each other’s worst enemies.

There are avenues which could have yielded a more interesting conclusion to the film. The adults who have manufactured this situation receive a bland pass from the script. Miss Bai, who set the surveillance task, fades into the background and offers no support to her star pupil whatsoever – and overlooking that spineless retreat seems a conspicuous failure of the film.

At the same time, Li Guo’s mother is unmoved by her daughter’s pleas to come home, marooned as she is at an institution where everyone hates her. It might have been foregrounded why she sent her daughter there at all, or what their relationship is beyond one brief whispered phone call – and the way it is left does not allow for any addressing of this presumably toxic relationship in a way that any young people watching might find helpful.

Jingni Ho’s Eighteen (another example of a very good film about high school) gives a view of what a film which actually tackles these points looks like. The protagonist’s awful relationship with her father, and her being ostracised from social groups after her diary is used to sack a teacher are played out in detail, before she is given a chance to confront those factors, and consider how she might rebuild her life in the future. There is no space in Secrets at the intermissions for such an arc – because that does not seem to have been a priority compared to simply shoehorning in as many scenes of gratuitous cruelty as possible.

There are so many moments of bickering and sly bullying in this film that even they cannot be knitted into a coherent story at a certain point. Exemplifying this, in one scene, students are preparing to play football, and one team needs a defender. Li Guo volunteers, and some sneering responses suggest she would not be welcome. But rather than see her walk away, suddenly she is standing between the two teams who have magically manifested tiny beanbags to pelt her with.

Another missed opportunity comes in the shape of Huang Ting (Chen Linyu), the only girl left who will speak to Li Guo. She is also an outcast, although it is unclear why – possibly because she has learning difficulties – who is regularly tormented by everyone else. Huang Ting regularly offers kindness when nobody else will, but Li Guo spends the film acting as though she is ashamed to receive empathy from her.

In the end, the arc sees Li Guo decide to ‘save’ Huang Ting from some bullies, which at least suggests to young people that solidarity between the oppressed can be the key to their salvation – but turning Huang Ting into someone to be saved, rather than the most emotionally mature person in the film, seems slightly disingenuous. The Banshees of Inisherin’s Barry comes to mind – someone belittled by everyone in the film for being ‘slow’, who spends the film trying to support an ungrateful jerk, before realising he’s wasting his energy. I wouldn’t wish the horrible fate of that character on Huang Ting, but it certainly would have been an interesting departure from a very normative take on her character, if she would have a realisation none of these people are worthy of her support.

One thing I should mention is that everyone in the case does a great job. Sadly, that does not do enough to elevate the production as a whole. The slapdash editing, overdone narrative tropes and non-committal strands of commentary which run through Secrets at the intermissions do not make for a particularly enjoyable or enlightening watch. If I were a student at junior high or high school, I’m not sure why I would seek this out when it has so little to teach me, and I could probably experience better-written bullies first-hand… As an adult, it just makes me glad that I don’t have to experience that at all.

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