Trigger Warning for discussion of bullying, suicide, sexual assault, and violence.
In a conversation between an older and younger cop early into the 135-minute Better Days, one says to the other something to the effect that either you were the bully or the bullied in high school. That memory softens which you were with time. While the bullies may lead a lighter adulthood, it’s fairly easy to assume that the bullied carry those scars with them forever. They mold them, shape them, like a forge unto metal, hardening them in ways which can’t be predicted or anticipated. There is a loss here, of humanity and of self, which cannot be regained, only tempered. Inspired by the Chinese YA Young and Beautiful by Jiuyue Xi, director Derek Kwok-Cheung Tsang’s Better Days (Shao nian de ni) tells the story of two isolated, socially shunned individuals whose coming together is not intentional, but saves both of their lives in the end.
With only 60 days until the national exam that will decide which school they attend for university, Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) and her classmates spend every waking moment in preparation. Pressures are high for everyone, so it’s not too surprising for them when fellow classmate Hu Xiaodie (Zhang Yifan) commits suicide in the courtyard of the school. A side effect of Xiaodie’s death is it makes Nian the new target of three bullies who act so relentlessly and leave Nian with little help from any adult. Nian does eventually find help in Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee), a young boy cast out by society and left to fend for himself. The two develop a bond that each will need more and more as each day that passes, getting Nian closer to the test, closer to freedom, while the bullies grow more vicious with time.
Better Days was originally slated for an early 2019 release, but was pulled, along with other films, during a series of removals from Chinese cinemas. The Chinese censors have final say over what plays in theaters throughout the country and the realistic depiction of violence and sexual assault within Better Days prompted concern from various authority groups. Now, however, Better Days can be seen at home, at least within the United States, and audiences can decide for themselves if the education authorities were correct in their concern. While ultimately tasteful, Tsang’s approach is more emotionally violent than visually. He doesn’t seem to want the audience to be overtaken with the visceral, physical response to violence. Instead, he wants them to feel it psychologically. This approach means that the audience never sees the body of Xiaodie except from great distances, but we do see the almost giddy responses from her classmates throughout the school as they clamor for position to take photos, record videos, and send messages between each other. We don’t see Bei’s beating in any great detail when he first crosses paths with Nian, but we do see the blood and bruises on his face. The violence isn’t the point of Better Days, but the aftermath is, the failure of the system to do anything beyond patchwork bandages just leaves an opening for more tragedy. Tsang highlights the notion that victims of violence aren’t saved once the bruises fade and wounds heal because the pain remains.
This is the strength of Better Days and why it will resonate long after the film is completed. Part of this is in the simple, yet melodic score from Varqa Buehrer (The Bucket), which makes the film seem like an extended dream. Part of it is the cinematography from Yu Jing Pin (Soul Mate), who takes Tsang’s mostly tightly cropped feature and makes the audience feel like they are piercing the dermis into the souls of the characters. Most of it is from leads Zhou and Yee who deliver absolutely devastating performances. In the two brief “Making Of” featurettes, the actors are each highlighted individually, giving the audience a chance to see what it was like for them on set and offering a sense of their experience in the roles. To see Zhou so absolutely jubilant off-camera, yet so internally destroyed on, is a testament to her abilities as an actor. Of course, whether she has any personal understanding of the type of trauma Nian faced, Zhou still managed to capture that perpetual sense of terror that comes from not knowing from where and how violence might arrive on your person. That fear turns someone inward, making them seem dismissive at first, but it’s all protection. Zhou conveys this naturally, breaking the audience’s collective heart over and again with each trauma she endures. From his featurette, the audience learns that Yee, a member of a music group TFboys, has not worked in film before, appearing on set dedicated to the scenework every day. Though Yee’s done some television, his performance as Bei places him on another level. Like Zhou’s, Yee’s performance is largely physical, communicating through stance, glance, and other kinesthetic means rather than dialogue. There is, in fact, a scene in which no words are exchanged between Nian and Bei, they just look at each other and oscillate between elation, grief, joy, and fear. Like much of Tsang’s direction, it’s a scene staged simply, yet achieves maximum emotional devastation.
For those who’ve ever experience daily abuse from classmates, neighbors, family, or really anyone, there’s a lot about Better Days that will be a struggle to endure. Tsang is absolutely unflinching in capturing how individuals react to abuse in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s to create justifications of weakness. Sometimes it’s because the acts makes you feel better about yourself. Sometimes it’s just being grateful that you’re not the target. Though not explored as fully as other elements, Tsang makes sure to spend time showing characters exploring the implications of the expulsion of social responsibility. This is done slightly through the slow unveiling of the reasons behind Xiaodie’s death, but more grandly through Bei. Both are considered outcasts, yet for vastly different reasons. One of the best things about Better Days is how it continually asks the audience to reconsider how they feel about the characters within the story. Bei, for instance, is shown as a lower class hoodlum, yet, with time, he transforms in our eyes as unto a Prince Charming, before transforming into something else entirely before the film ends. If any of this feels troubling, Tsang opens Better Days with a warning that the film intends to explore and present bullying due to the epidemic going on in Chinese schools.
If there is a weakness to Better Days, it’s that it’s constantly shifting in tone and genre. This works well for the majority of the film, but there’s a twist so unexpected that the coming of age teen drama switches into a gear so far from where it was that audiences may struggle with understanding what’s happening. Thankfully the narrative includes elements which explain the shift, enabling the audience to once more nestle back into the story, but it’s a shift so grand that it rattles the remaining experience. Having not read the original novel, this reviewer can’t speak to the authenticity of the adaption, however, what occurs does continue the exploration of the idea that there is a rippling effect from violence that appears seen or unseen. That what we think we know is often blinded by our own frame of reference. That pain runs deeper than hope, yet, despite all reason, hope can endure further than one might imagine. This is perhaps why Better Days is best understood as a contemplation on our own role in society, that it’s not enough to want us to be better, but to create the version of the world we long for. Our pain shapes us, but it does not have to define us. Whether we are Nian, Bei, or their oppressors, as adults, we can use our pain to create better days for those who come next.
Better Days Special Features
- “Making of” Featurettes (2)
- Trailers (3)
Available on Blu-ray and digital May 5th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.