“Better Days” is a searing indictment of bullying culture and China’s insanely intense college admissions system, all tucked into a sadly compelling romantic thriller.
The added-attention of an Oscar nomination gives a welcome boost to a movie much of the world missed in late 2019, but one well worth enduring and embracing.
“Enduring” because Derek Tsang’s film has a relentless quality, heartbreaking twists all the way through its multiple anti-climaxes ending. It almost outstays its welcome as it flips back and forth about how it resolves itself.
But “Better Days” is worth embracing because of its downtrodden leading characters, their compelling story and the brutality they endure from a Darwinian academic and social culture’s winner-takes-all system.
A Hong Kong production shot in Chunkging, it tells the story of Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu), a petite, mousy teen in a huge high school where every class drills kids for their senior exams, where every wall is adorned with slogans — “No Excuses,” “The Smart Always Find Ways” — where every teacher is a cheerleader and if that’s not enough, there are chanting pep rallies to reinforce cultural dogma.
“I will not fail my parents!” (in Mandarin with English subtitles) “I will not disappoint my teachers!”
Chen Nian is studious and smart, a walking endorsement of “meritocracy.” She is poor. Her single mom (Wu Yue) is locally infamous, hustling grey market goods, unsafe knock offs and the like.
“When you graduate from college (after excelling on the admissions exam) we’ll escape from this hellhole.”
Pressure? A little.
But then a classmate hurls herself off a balcony in front of everybody. As the other kids gawk and take cellphone shots, Chen Nian weeps and drapes her jacket over the body. They were deskmates. And when we see the mountain of books piled in front of each of them on that desk, we understand.
Except that’s not the whole picture. There’s a mean girl posse led by Wei Lai (Zhour Ye). And from the relentless way they go after Chen Nian after she meets with the cops, we understand the hell that these kids endure, not just from the system but from each other.
The bullying of Nian quickly escalates into assault, but the young cop (Yin Fang) who interrogated her after her deskmate’s death proves to be well-intentioned and ineffectual. Mean girls have parents and minions who back them to the hilt, at least in the movies.
It’s when Chen Nian’s compassion shows itself again that she finds a protector. She calls the cops when she sees a boy being beaten, and is slapped around herself for her trouble. Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee) is nothing if not gallant. He will repay her. A brittle relationship forms between the teen punk living on his own and neglected Nian (Mom has to go on the lam).
“Do you like me?” he wants to know.
“What is there to like?”
We watch Nian suffer by day but get a break from the after-school assaults after this connection is forged. But something about the tough guy should be a warning. His “I always get even in the end” means that the Mean Girl and her Posse wars will only get worse.
Actor turned director Tsang — he did “Soulmates” — fleshes out Jiu Yuexi’s novel with spirited montages of the pressure-cooker school and the grim routines of the life of students there. Who has time to be bullied or do the bullying?
But that’s the way of it, parents, teachers and cops agree. “You’re either a bully, or you’re bullied.”
Even the death of a classmate faces a circumscribed investigation, because the kids “can’t spare more time. Exams are coming.” A giant digital clock at school counts down the days. Parents show up, drop to their knees and beg teachers, and when that fails, they shriek at their kids and whale on them in front of the entire school.
With every hope of social mobility riding on the Chinese ACT/SAT, everyone feels the strain.
Two of China’s brightest young stars set off sparks in this bullying variation of the French classic “Breathless,” with its bad boy, the “good” girl, violence, love and eventually crime entering the story.
As I mentioned above, the third act tends to go on and on, twisting and twisting in on itself, undercutting the flashback structure (A teacher — Chen Nian? — looks back on 2011.) or making that something of a teen-fantasy-about-our-future interpretation.
“Better Days” may open with a disclaimer about this “worldwide” problem, which bullying is in our social media age. But as savage as that is here, it’s the unbearable pressure of “the system” that sticks with you. Social strata as grimly defined as Dickensian England and entire families living or dying by how the smartest kid does in these soul-crushing tests make “The Chinese Way” to global success not one many would be willing to emulate.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, smoking
Cast: Zhou Dongyu, Jackson Yee, Yin Fang, Zhou Ye, Wu Yue and Huang Jue
Credits: Directed by Derek Tsang, script by Wing-Sum Lam, Yimeng Xu, Yuan Li and Nan Chen, based on a novel by Jiu Yuexi. A Well Go release.
Running time: 2:15