2019 | Not Rated (hard PG-13 equivalent) | starring Dongyu Zhou, Jackson Yee | directed by Kwok Cheung (Derek) Tsang | 2 hrs 15 mins | In Mandarin with English Subtitles |
Derek Tsang’s high school drama Better Days has had a rough ride to theaters. Initially pulled from the Berlin Film Festival with no reason given, then canceled by the Chinese government and dumped into theaters with no promotion. As of this writing, Better Days has been in wide release in US theaters for 2 weeks and has only 3 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes with most critics dutifully going along with Chinese government censorship.
The movie is, largely, terrific. Earlier this year, I wondered if the small scope of The Farewell was the result of American film companies not being able to film in China. Days by contrast feels like we’re immersed in Hong Kong, walking through the streets and the schools. Where The Farewell dealt with traditionally reserved emotions of Hong Kong adults, Days sets its headspace in the heightened, dramatic teenage world. It doesn’t hold back, swinging for the fences emotionally, wallowing in the love, loss, fear and stress of it’s two lead characters. While the setting is very specific, the story is universal. Director Derek Tsang sketches out one of the most harshly realistic looks at high school bullying in the smart phone era and then wraps it in a genre film.
The film opens with an agonizingly good slow reveal. Chen Nian (Dongyu Zhou)’s best friend has tragically died and the bullies who drove her to it now set their sights on Nian. One day she meets Bei (Jackson Lee), also being beaten up, and the two form a close bond in which Bei takes on the role of Nian’s protector. It’s a relationship that complicates matters with the school officials, the bullies and the local police. Tsang feels through the psychopathy of the school mean girls, enforcing their place in the social strata with cyberbullying to outright assault. The school officials lose their jobs if they try to help and the police can only wonder why they didn’t reach out for help sooner when every other system of authority has failed. The backdrop to all of this is the school’s epic preparation for the Gaokao exam, a nationalized Chinese standardized test that determines the future of all of the nation’s youths. The test – the subject of chants where the kids vow not to let down their teachers – represents both the regimented stresses put on these students and Nian’s escape from the daily harassment. They work for nothing other than taking the exam.
Better Days’ biggest issue is that it runs long in the tooth, finding a natural dramatic climax in the day of the Gaokao and then turning over a new rock and finding a new movie underneath it. That Tsang’s story turns into a more traditional genre crime film is somewhat disappointing, but at that point I was so with both Nian and Bei’s relationship (where she sweetly confesses things to him on the back of his motorcycle and he can’t hear her over the wind) that Zhou and Lee are making it work. Tsang brings them together and threatens to rip them apart. That Nian and Bei’s relationship is largely vague in how platonic and how romantic (if any) it adds to the complexity. That the movie is set against a surveillance state that captures everything on camera, but misses the context, adds more texture.
Tsang can’t quite settle on an ending here, offering up about 3 or 4 endpoints, most of which are very good and then goes one big step too far in the final moments when Better Days becomes a full-blown to-the-camera PSA for anti-bullying. Any political or social statement made this overtly doesn’t belong in a movie like this. Shut the film off at the end titles and you’ve got a satisfying ending, all be it one that is as bittersweet as Eastern films tend to be.
Better Days is exactly the kind of well told, beautifully made from a visual standpoint and brutally honest high school film I was looking for. It pinpoints the current nexus between high school pressure and cyberbullying and does so with a raw nerve for it’s characters – and a little mystery. One of the better movies of the year.