THE STORY – A bullied high school student and a small-time criminal become the prime suspects in the murder of a teenage girl who turns out to be the student’s nemesis for the state Gaokao exam.
THE CAST – Zhou Dongyu & Jackson Yee
THE TEAM – Derek Tsang (Director), Lam Wing Sum, Li Yuan & Xu Yimeng (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 135 minutes
By Tom O’Brien
To the surprise of many, director Derek Tsang’s Hong Kong film, “Better Days,” bested several higher-profile titles to nab one of the five nomination slots for this year’s Academy Award for Best International Feature. The film, little known in the U.S. before the nomination, was the cause of some controversy in China, as the Chinese government pulled the film from the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, reportedly due to its belief that the film’s focus on bullying in Chinese schools reflected badly on the nation’s culture.
If you watch “Better Days” expecting some political screed, you will be surprised to find instead a touching romance between two unlikely young people from different worlds with different goals, each of whom is suffering at the hands of bullies. After her best friend, who endured intense bullying, commits suicide in front of the entire school, studious 12th-grader Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) makes the mistake of graciously covering her friend’s body with her coat. That simple gesture raises the ire of bully Wei Lei (Zhou Ye) and her mean-girl posse, and they set out to make Chen Nian their new target.
One night on her walk home, Chen Nian comes upon young street thug Xiao Bei (pop star Jackson Yee) being beaten up in the streets by a street gang. They turn on Chen Nian, forcing the two bullied victims to kiss for the gang’s amusement. Though nighttime poses a threat from gangs in her neighborhood, daytime proves to be not much better. She is regularly bullied at school by Wei Lei and her friends. Their harassment reaches such a violent point that the school has to call in police detective Zheng Yi (Yin Fang) to investigate, resulting in the bullies’ expulsion from school.
However, they can still find Chen Nian after school, and the bullying continues, driving her to ask Xiao Bei to serve as her protector. Xiao Bei, who has developed feelings for her, readily agrees. This allows Chen Nian to focus entirely on studying for the all-important college entrance examinations, which help determine her future. On one day of the exam, while Chen Nian is indoors taking the test, outside a construction worker unearths a dead body, a corpse that may (or may not) be linked to Chen Nian and Xiao Bei.
Tsang doesn’t pull any punches (so to speak) in his handling of the film’s scenes of bullying – the violence, both physical and emotional, will ring true to anyone, including me, who suffered at the hands of bullies as a child. But Tsang’s serious approach to the film’s romantic elements helps keep the story’s anti-bullying message from playing like an afterschool special.
Still, when the murder mystery is introduced in the third act, it tends to consume the remainder of the film. While it reveals important elements to the character of both Chen Nian and Xiao Bai, as well as returning Detective Zheng to the story, the “whodunnit” turns into a “why-dunnit” through extensive flashbacks. Genre conventions begin to take hold and take us away from what made the preceding two acts so special. While the plot structure of “Better Days” may be unwieldy at times, the romantic spirit that is carefully maintained throughout the film and Tsang’s skill in realizing it makes “Better Days” a most worthy competitor in this year’s Oscar race.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A powerful depiction of school bullying mixed with a star-crossed romance makes for a compelling look at the dark side of teen life in China.
THE BAD – A third-act murder mystery subplot hijacks the narrative, spinning it into a not-always-productive direction.
THE FINAL SCORE – 7/10