Now that China has effectively exercised its mandate over Hong Kong and all that entails in terms of freedoms for the former British territory, it remains to be seen how independent of party influence the city’s famously independent film industry will remain. Derek Tsang’s Better Days is being touted as a kind of test case. Though a typical Asian youth drama, it was pulled from the schedule of the Berlin Film Festival in 2019 by Chinese authorities, which later cancelled its theatrical release, though the movie finally opened in theaters at the end of the year. These factors probably had something to do with its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film; that and the notion that, a year after Parasite won big, the Academy probably thinks it has to recognize at least one Asian film a year from now on (Minari didn’t really count). Generally speaking, the movie’s buzz is more intriguing that the movie itself.
Apparently, what pissed off the Chinese censors was Tsang’s portrayal of school bullying, which is pretty brutal, as well as the national university entrance text process, which comes off as slightly less distressing than a season in hell. These are hardly original subjects, especially in Asian coming-of-age films, but now that China has its hooks in Hong Kong the authorities probably think it’s best to get people prepared for lowered ambitions. In any case, the story is based on a novel set in 2011 and focused on a student named Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu), who, like everybody else, is cramming miserably for the exam. When her study mate commits suicide, the police center their investigation on Chen, who knows that her friend was being bullied by a clique of girls. These girls now redirect their malevolence toward her in order to keep her quiet.
One night while trying to evade her tormentors, Chen happens upon small-time hood Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee), who is himself being beaten up by his betters. When she tries to intervene the thugs humiliate her, but the incident gives her common cause with Xiao. At school, the bullying escalates to physical violence and threats against Chen’s family owing to the fact that, in order to corner the “queen bee” bully, the police lie and tell her that Chen has already fingered her as the dead girl’s tormentor. The bullies are suspended and, naturally, come after Chen one night with box cutters and a cage full of rats. She seeks sanctuary with Xiao and asks him to be her protector until she takes the exam, and from then on he shadows her wherever she goes. They become close, and one night while being questioned by police, Chen is attacked by the bullies who beat her mercilessly and cut off her hair.
Tsang’s command of tone is impressive, and he juggles the various story lines adeptly until the thriller plot points that drive the second half shove the film into a mire of implausibility whose excuse is that it is meant to be heartbreaking. As with most youth movies of its ilk, the romance is chaste and the sins of the fathers (and mothers) explain everything about the mess that these young people now have to navigate, though Tsang doesn’t hold anything back in his condemnation of societal rot. It’s not clear what kind of future he has in such an environment, but he’s already mastered the art of stylish youthful melodrama.
In Cantonese. Opens July 16 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).
Better Days home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2019 Shooting Pictures Ltd., China (Shenzhen) Wit Media Co., Ltd., Tianjin XIRON Entertainment Co., Ltd., We Pictures Ltd., Kashi J.Q. Culture and Media Company Limited, The Alliance of Gods Pictures (Tianjin) Co., Ltd., Shanghai Alibaba Pictures Co., Ltd., Tianjin Maoyan Weying Media Co., Ltd., Lianray Pictures, Local Entertainment, Yunyan Pictures, Beijing Jin Yi Jia Yi Film Distribution Co., Ltd., Dadi Century (Beijing) Co., Ltd., Zhejiang Hengdian Films Co., Ltd., Fat Kids Production, Goodfellas Pictures Limited