It gets gnarly, but mired in soapy theatrics
Chen Nian (Dongyu Zhao) is just trying to survive high school long enough to get through China’s gaokao, a statewide 2-day college entrance exam where the pressure is nothing short of explosive. Unfortunately for her, when a classmate hurls herself from the roof of their school, Chen Nian becomes the new subject of the school bullies’ attention.
Chinese cinema has been a pretty lifelong love of mine ever since discovering John Woo and Hong Kong cinema in its heyday. Of late, the global powerhouse has really worked to perfect the Western blockbuster and has cranked out some unbelievably huge box office smashes. But the control of the country’s communist government routinely impacts the cinema filmmakers are able to produce and export, and frequently the censorious nature of the product we get feels frustrating. I’d say the male popstar lead of Better Days (Jackson Yee, apparently making his big screen acting debut after having found fame in a boy band) giving an anti-bullying PSA after the movie ends and hyping up all the great work the party is doing to curtail bullying is a perfect example of the blatant nationalism rampant in modern Chinese cinema.
And yet, to Better Days’ credit, the movie does not seem to pull punches with its depictions of bullying, the anxiety students feel around these state-enforced tests, or even the street crime that Yee’s character Xiao Bei has fallen into. Better Days feels more grounded and authentic than virtually any contemporary Chinese film I’ve seen. It’s just that it takes all that subject matter and spins it into an energetic and heightened melodrama designed just as much to thrill and entertain as to explore and expose, and that tonal mashup doesn’t always work.
When Chen Nian first encounters Xiao Bei, it’s quite a violent exchange. He’s being jumped by a gang and she’s pulled into the situation and forced to kiss him as he’s being beaten. Not exactly a “meet cute.” From there they form a pretty contentious relationship that eventually becomes something quite tender. As Chen Nian’s desperation increases as the bullying becomes violent, she turns to Xiao Bei for protection. It works, for a time, and our odd couple of street thug and aspiring/struggling future college student form a bond of trust and empathy. Their youthful bond is touching, and it works. Which is good, because the entire back half of the film hinges very strongly on the audience buying the connection between our leads. As a whole, Better Days is a good film with some issues. The recipe would most definitely have soured if not for the performances, writing, direction, etc., which ultimately sells the human connection these two achieve.
In the back half one of Chen Nian’s bullies ends up dead, but the audience is surprised by this development and we’re unsure how she was killed or who killed her. Chen Nian and Xiao Bei become suspects both in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the viewing audience. Better Days morphs into more of a timeline-hopping thriller and mystery than a heartfelt exploration of a connection forged amidst societal failings. There are twists and turns galore, and we’re forced to question our leads and their true motivations. It’s certainly a thrill ride, but I found myself longing for the quieter and more grounded first half of the film than the over the top melodrama of the back half.
For Western lovers of Chinese cinema, there’s enough here in Better Days to grab onto and enjoy. It’s not the typical martial arts saga or slick cop thriller we often get from Well Go USA. But the mystery/thriller elements it delves into make it feel more like a genre film and less like an earnest drama about the ravages of bullying and the importance of forming bonds with people unlike ourselves. I was unfamiliar with director Derek Tsang’s work, or the work of the leads, and found a solid and stylized film that addressed some real world cultural issues with at least a modicum of potency poking through the state censors. Better Days strikes a hopeful and human note, suggesting that a true bond can stand against the crushing systems all around us.
And I’m Out.
Better Days is now available on Digital and Blu-ray from Well Go USA Entertainment.