Perceptive and gripping drama from China about pressure and bullying in schools, and one of the best films of 2019.
It’s easy to go into a film screening with preconceptions, especially having seen so many films already. I knew that Better Days AKA Shao nian de ni was a drama about high-school bullying, with reference to suicide, and I had to wonder whether it was going to be a bit like Heathers, but with different dress sense.
No: Better Days is a serious, almost literary quality, drama. It has wit, but not the sarcastic kind at all; it has romance, but nothing cheesy, and it has plenty to think about without being heavy-going in the slightest. Better Days is one of the best new films I’ve seen this year.
Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) is a shy and intelligent student, preparing for “gaokao”, a two-day national college entrance exam, and feeling pressures from all sides: her mother works away selling black market goods, the strict exams determine her future (“those at the bottom may as well give up now!”), and her closest friend has just taken her own life due to bullying from classmates. Shortly after those bullies redirect their attention (both emotional and physical) to Chen, she encounters Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee), who is being picked on by a different crowd, and they form a bond. They look out for each other and support each other, especially as neither has anyone else to do so.
Chen Nian and the school bullies are very much like people I remember myself from school; though unlike my own bullies, we get glimpses into these girls’ relationships with their parents, and clues to what influences them. Chen Nian has a journey towards independence to navigate, trying to stand up for herself without bringing more trouble down upon her (or indeed her mother); and telling Xiao Bei she doesn’t need anyone else, yet appreciating a kindred spirit when she sees one. Xiao Bei’s character is not quite so nuanced, but he provides much for hers to bounce off. Zhou Dongyu was in director Derek Kwok-Cheung Tsang’s other film, Soulmate, as well as many other film and television titles, and she portrays Chen Nian with tangible insight: being both shy and strong does not come across as a contradiction, as it may have done in other hands. In contrast, Jackson Yee is a singer and dancer for Chinese boy band TFboys, and has had many minor screen appearances, but this is his first major role.
Although the characters feel real and familiar, I’m pleased to say that the plot kept me on my toes. As the bullying escalated and the friendship between the two leads became closer, I half expected it to lead towards some kind of Strangers on a Train pact of anonymous revenge, but it’s nothing like that predictable. Instead, Tsang takes the audience seamlessly from school drama through murder mystery into romantic tragedy, so profound it struck me as virtually Shakespearean.
Better Days is a harrowing and violent film at times: not only do we see everything these young people endure (and close up), but we see their attacks being ignored by passers-by. The torment is wide-ranging, taking the form of verbal abuse, beatings, and sneers on social media. And it seems that there is no escape for Chen Nian either: when her tormentors are suspended, they find her outside of school. The film takes time to draws us in to her world, helped by the cinematography too: it may be my imagination, but it felt like virtually half of what I saw on the screen was close up or reportage-style shots; not merely intimate filming, but I might as well have been holding the camera myself. Close shots of faces, injuries, food, the slow-moving clock in the exam hall… not only did I see it all, but I was close enough to feel it all too.
Better Days was due to premiere at the Berlin Film Fest in February 2019, but apparently, it needed some alterations before the Chinese authorities were prepared for the world to see it. Word is that the film showed Chinese society in too negative a light; perhaps that is why narrative around legal improvements has been added at the end. I would be fascinated to know if anything else was changed because from my perspective Better Days is an extremely successful film: portraying a society more than judging it; strong, relatable characters who are not too-good-to-be-true.