Better Days truly is one hell of a thing. From what seem to be social realist beginnings, Derek Tsang’s fourth film shifts effortlessly into a genuinely touching melodrama and then again into a violent thriller. It is an impressive feat to do each style of narrative so well; even more so to blend them in such a seamless manner. The end result, while flawed in places, stands up as one of 2019’s best Asian features.
Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) studies at a cram school in the lead-up to her college entry exams. A classmate, cracking under the pressure and suffering from non-stop bullying, jumps to her death from a school balcony. After drawing attention to herself by stepping forward and covering the dead girl with her jacket, Nian becomes a fresh target for the unrepentant bullies.
The film begins, via introductory captions, with a focus on the phenomenon of school bullying. Underneath this veneer, which spirals considerably out of control and into quite upsetting territory, there is also a surprisingly blunt criticism of China’s notorious ‘gaokao’ test. The gaokao, a college entry exam undertaken by more than nine million teenagers a year, is regarded as one of the most pressurized and academically taxing examinations in the world. Suicides such as those committed by Nian’s classmate Hu Xiaode (Zhang Yifan) are a real-world phenomenon. There is a sense that such criticism is deliberately obfuscated by the cover of bullying; certainly upon completion Better Days struggled to be released due to government censorship and forced delays. I honestly wonder if the treatment of the gaokao is one reason why.
Circumstance brings Nian to meeting Bei (Jackson Yee), a low-level gang member squatting in a tiny derelict apartment beneath a bridge. In all fairness he is hardly the world’s most talented criminal, but he is dedicated and can certainly take a physical beating. Bei offers to protect Nian as she walks home from school, and a friendship soon develops. It is at this stage that the apparent social issue-dominated tone of the film slips away, and a much more traditional – and enormously effective – romantic melodrama ensues. The bullying, however, gets worse. The police become involved, events take a particularly upsetting turn, and melodrama shifts into a much bleaker and more unrelenting gear.
The film’s middle act works to a very large degree due to the performances of Zhou and Lee. Time is taken both to properly flesh the characters out, and to believably bring them together without feeling superficial. Zhou in particular is phenomenal, and absolutely sells Nian’s inner torment and growing paranoia. Elsewhere in the cast, Yin Fang successfully sells an upbeat, idealist police detective named Zheng while Huang Jue, excellent in Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018), is rock-solid here as he balances that optimism as Zheng’s grizzled, more cynical partner.
Everything is given a strong sense of place, with cinematographer Yu Jing-pin sculpting a busy city landscape of alleyways and stairs into a foreboding and uneasy labyrinth of light and shadow. Varqa Buehrer’s musical score is largely unobtrusive, keeping things relatively subtle and atmospheric with a few well-chosen and executed exceptions. It creates an unexpectedly threatening environment: reflecting the film’s location as a China of cruelty, petty crime, contraband goods, street gangs, and unethical police.
Despite its general excellence, Better Days does unfortunately wear out its welcome. The film’s climactic act drags to mystifying extremes, and passes several tonally perfect potential endings before reaching a conclusion. Even then it keeps on going, with an unnecessary epilogue dropped shortly into the closing titles. That in mind, there is still so much to recommend here: strong performances, dialogue, and technical work, and a willingness to stand up and actually say something worth hearing to the audience. This is an exceptional piece of work.
Grant Watson is an independent film critic based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a two-time winner of the William Atheling Jr Award for Australian science fiction criticism and review. You can find his other reviews at FictionMachine and FilmInk.