In February, Chinese authorities yanked Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang's Better Days from its Berlin Film Fest slot. It was a controversial action for a film that has proven to be more controversial than you might expect from award-winning Tsang's second feature.
In the film, Nian (Zhou Dongyu) is preparing for the Chinese gaokao, a two-day national college entrance exam that brings the entire nation to a standstill and largely determines the fates of Chinese students and their families. Nian has largely blocked out her entire life in preparing for the exams, but when she is questioned following a deskmate's death by suicide her life becomes a cycle of increasingly intense bullying that is both emotional and physical. It is only when she encounters Bei (Jackson Yee) that life begins to change a bit as he becomes both her protector and confidante. When the two are drawn into a murder investigation, however, tensions intensify and Better Days becomes a bleak, gripping glimpse inside an oppressive society where the dark side of high expectations is revealed and even an involving love story is filled with inescapable psychological horrors.
Buzz around Better Days hit a fever pitch when Chinese authorities subsequently canceled its planned June domestic release amidst fears and anxieties over its negative portrayal of Chinese culture. When the film was finally released on October 25th, Better Days became a slam dunk success with an opening weekend box-office of $85.3 million. The success continues to ripples as the film now heads out into international markets, including the U.S., in November though it's doubtful that the controversial film will feel quite as controversial for most international audiences.
Better Days is particularly harrowing in its first half as we're introduced to Nian, a seemingly demure young woman whose singular focus on studying we will eventually see is masking an entirely other world. As the bullying intensifies, and Tsang is rather relentless in its portrayal, the fractures in Nian begin to show and they are fractures representative of the world in which she lives. Scenes of bullying within the school setting are chilling in their emotional and physical violence, overhead cameras often capturing the actions yet nary a single human being ever intervening emotionally or physically. Dongyu is absolutely riveting in these scenes, her face revealing so much more than her character is ever actually speaking. While given less range to work with here, Jackson Yee, more known as part of the boyband trio TFboys, is similarly compelling even if the chemistry between the two never quite convinces. Making his feature film acting debut, Yee provided the vocal work for the main character in 2015's The Little Prince.
The film's second half is no less involving, though the intense bullying gives way to the less satisfying love story and a murder investigation that stretches the story's framework just a tad too far. The film shifts from gritty realism to melodramatic as the two deal with Detective Zheng Yi (Yin Fang) and an investigation that disrupts the overall rhythm of the film for a brief period.
Yu Jing-Pin's lensing for Better Days moves from the intense urban grit of the film's early moments to a more hyper-stylized sense of action and drama in the film's latter half, yet there's no denying that much of what makes the film so hypnotic is its remarkable production values and this beautiful, sweeping lensing.
It's doubtful that Better Days will have quite the impact stateside as it had during its controversial yet financially rewarding domestic release in China. Films about bullying and societal pressures are a dime a dozen here in the United States, controversy seldom an issue that would block a release and the stylized melodrama of a film like Better Days hardly qualifying for such a status. However, controversy aside Better Days is an involving, often gripping film with a tremendous performance by Dongyu, whose small stature allows the mid-20's actress to easily pass for a high school student.
Opening in limited nationwide release with indie distributor Well Go USA Entertainment, Better Days is a rewarding view that should attract interest here in the U.S. and throughout its select international markets. For more information on the film, visit its official website linked to in the credits.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic