A high school senior hopes for Better Days in Derek Tsang’s romantic drama.
“Either you bully others, or you get bullied.”
“So which are you?”
Every year, there’s a movie like this at the London East Asian Film Festival. And every year I go in expecting something eye-rolling and come out my gut severely punched. Better Days, a drama about bullying in Chinese schools, did exactly that this year, and – most impressively – did so in a way that never once felt manipulative or contrived. And one would be forgiven for thinking that: the story of honour student Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) and thug Liu Bei Shan (Jackson Yee), whom she hires to protect her from after accidentally saving him from getting murdered, does feel like a Shakespearian tragedy at times. After the death of her friend, and thanks to her mother’s bad reputation around town for being a huckster of contraband face masks, Chen finds herself the subject of pretty awful bullying by classmate Wei Lai (Zhou Ye) and her gang.
But it isn’t, thankfully, as artificial or manipulative as it might seem at first. Better Days has been referred to as a melodrama a fair bit and while it’s not an entirely untrue assessment it’s also not very accurate. There’s a level of genuineness to the performances and plot. To the credit of both original novelist Jiu Yuexi and the numerous screenwriters at no point do Chen or Bei Shan feel particularly over the top, and even more impressive is the way it handles its bullies. Wei Lai’s characterisation could very easily have fallen victim to lazy writing and turned her into an irredeemable asshole and while she sometimes skirts that line a bit too closely for my taste, her actions always feel real. Not justified, mind you, but real. Because she, like everyone else in the film who isn’t living in a shack under an overpass, is a victim to expectations set out by parents and the unfair education-focused social system that dominates their lives. Director Derek Tsang presents the unbearable pressures and the astonishingly high stakes of the gaokao in a way almost reminiscent of some dystopian films. The idea that this one 3-day nightmare will determine the rest of your life has a certain Logan’s Run feel to it, but it’s showcased in a perfectly serious manner because, well, it is serious. While the majority of the story deals with bullying (as does the PSA at the end of the film), a lot of it stems from this exam and the burden that comes with it.
As it originates from such a hard truth it would be difficult for the film to be totally uninteresting, but thanks to excellent source material and his two leads Tsang finds a way to make the story particularly gripping. Zhou Dongyu and Jackson Yee are fantastic both separately and together and their characters along with their acting are a huge part of the reason why Better Days is so effective. Zhou does so much with her screentime, and shows us that Chen isn’t weak – but she’s been put upon in a way that forces her down and breaks her whenever she tries to stand up. Whether or not you know or even care about the issues presented will be largely undermined by whether you buy the growing relationship between these two. Sure, it likes to remind of us of what the film is about, down to a PSA (and no doubt your mileage may vary on whether it’s necessary to include) but none of it would work if we didn’t have two victims of this system front, centre and – most importantly – believably authentic.
And despite all the doom and gloom (and boy is there ever doom and gloom) ultimately it’s a movie that is hopeful. Tsang doesn’t leave us entirely pessimistic, though he comes damn close, and he’s able to show that kindness can come from anywhere – even the least expected sources. It gives us a taste of the pressures both the children and parents are under, to ensure that their lives get better. In their minds, suffering is inevitable to achieve your goals. Some people, it seems, end up suffering a lot more than others. But no one should have to put up with it until they just get a chance to run away and join a good university. That’s not a solution. But while it seems like this is a self-perpetuating and never-ending cycle, its English title is there to remind us that better days are on their way.
Verdict: Heart-wrenching and heavy, Better Days is not what I’d call easygoing viewing, but it’s damn good, and even preaches without getting preachy.
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Violence: 2/10 but it’s more upsetting than anything else
Happy moments: 0? Maybe 1.
This used to be our playground: This was our playground
Bullying techniques stolen from 1984: The rat cage
Single tears rolling down cheeks: 10/10
Better Days (2019)
Also known as: 少年的你; In His Youth
Director: Derek Tsang
Writers: Lam Wing Sum, Li Yuan, Xu Yimeng
Based on: In His Youth, In Her Beauty by Jiu Yuexi
Zhou Dongyu – Chen Nian
Jackson Yee – Liu Bei Shan
Yin Fang – Zheng Yi
Huang Jue – Lao Yang
Wu Yue – Mother
Zhou Ye – Wei Lai
Zhang Xinyi – Xu Miao
Liu Ran – Luo Ting
Xie Xintong – Wang Li
Zhang Yao – Li Xiang
Zhang Yifan – Hu Xiaodie
Zhao Runnan – Da Kang
Gao Xuanming – Lai Zi