Better Days (Shao nian de ni)

China (2019) Dir. Derek Tsang

As someone who as bullied at school and in my first two jobs, I can say with assurance that it is a truly soul destroying ordeal for anyone to endure. We are always told we should tell someone if we are being bullied but it rarely stops anything for the victim, let alone initiate punishment for the perpetrators. Sadly, it is still a global problem.

Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) is a high school student preparing for the important national Gaokao exams which determine which college she can attend. Studies are interrupted when a bullied girl Hu Xiaodie (Zhang Yifan) commits suicide on the school grounds. Out of guilt for not helping her, Chen Nian’s noble act of covering Hu’s body from the phone cameras earns her the spot of new victim for the bullies, led by rich girl Wei Lai (Ye Zhou).

This campaign begins in earnest but with her mother (Wu Yue) away hiding from debt collectors and angry customers of her dodgy goods, Chen Nian has to face this alone until she meets street punk Xia Bei (Jackson Yee). They enter into an agreement where Bei acts as Chen Nain’s bodyguard, discreetly following her to and from school, but on the one night Bei isn’t there, Wei Lai strikes with tragic consequences.

Derek Tsang, son of Hong Kong legend Eric Tsang, must have been laughing at the irony of the Beijing film censors board pulling Better Days from its premiere at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival at short notice for reason not given, though China’s strict stance against film’s that portray of criticise the country in a bad light would be a sure fire bet. This may not be bullying in the truest sense but silencing art this way comes close.

Of course, when it finally got a domestic release in China it ruled the box office so who had the last laugh? Unfortunately, laughs are not something that features too much in this film and understandably so, given its dour and sensitive subject matter that never seems to go away. Yet, this is something of a two-pronged attack as Tsang comments on the immense pressure put on students to do well academically in China as the cause of many teen casualties.

By way of illustration, the classrooms look more like the office of a financial company with each student’s desk piled high with books, papers, and folders. It’s an absurd yet terrifying visual that should have western kids feel immensely grateful their workloads are significantly lighter. Banners are festooned round the school demanding commitment and success and teachers regularly bark pseudo-encouraging platitudes like they were religious mantras.

For Chen Nain, the importance of passing her exams is to go to Beijing College and make something of her life, escaping the misery of her current life. Her mother sells knock off beauty products and is in tremendous debt, leaving Chen Nain hiding alone in fear when bailiffs and swindled customers comes calling. Her mother leaves town altogether to let things die down, which is no help for Chen Nain once the bullying escalates.

It appears Wei Lai expects life to be a breeze for her since her family throws money at any problem, so when she is reported for her actions, she escapes with little censure. The Education Board also wish to avoid scandal and will find a way to cover them up, as police detective Zheng Yi (Yin Fang) – the only other support Chen Nain has – is told by his superior in an off the record chat.

Luckily Chen Nian has Bei, though their first meeting is one of the more original in film. Chen Nian is walking home one night (yes, school ends that late) passing three men beating Bei up, so she calls the police. One of the men grabs Chen Nain and forces her to kiss the bloodied face of Bei, which is the impetus he needs to fight back. He may deal in stolen goods and get into fights but as an abandoned child, Bei does what he has to in order to survive.

A new dichotomy is created as the promising student and high school dropout become saviours for each other in a relationship based on platonic similarities than romance, though as an inevitability, no matter how much the script resists being open about it. Bei’s criminal life of course would be the fulcrum around which the devastating attack on Chen Nian occurs and how they deal with the fallout.

When it all hits the fan, the corruption of Chen Nian and Bei from the other’s influence is depicted as Noir-ish act of loyalty to the only ones they can trust. Bei’s actions remain driven by his vow to protect Chen Nan; hers is to stop Bei from throwing his life away at her expense but neither wants the other to suffer. This section might be a little protracted but in exploring the depth of feelings and connection formed between Chen Nian and Bei, it is a masterly avoidance of melodramatic clichés with the same poignant effect.

Maybe some of the rhetoric is a little blunt in decrying bullying, the crushing pressure of the school system, and parental failure, but making it easily digestible is the tour-de-force performance from Zhou Dongyu. She may be 28 years-old but convincingly passes for 16, though it is the emotional impact of her role that is spellbinding. Her face may seem blank and inexpressive but by showing so little she tells a million stories, and the power of each story told is bathed in a melancholic radiance.

Better Days is in fact based on a true story, which did force change in the Chinese government’s policy of its handling of bullying, leading to new initiatives to curb and prevent it in schools. It may be a fictional dramatisation but if Tsang’s film opens a few more eyes to this problem, its unapologetically harrowing content will be worth it.