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Review: Better Days

April 22, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

2021 Academy Award nominee for Best International Feature

Director Derek Tsang’s anti-bullying film Better Days, which became a massive box office hit in China upon its release in 2019, is a sprawling teen melodrama that mixes elements of romance and crime drama to pretty good if at times heavy-handed effect.

The film is also significant as it is only the third international film entry from Hong Kong to receive an Oscar nomination, and the first with a native Hong Kong filmmaker at its helm.

The story explores the simmering friendship between Chen Nien (Zhou Dongyu), a student in her last few months of high school who is being mercilessly bullied by a group of mean girls, and Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee), a rough teen who is tied up with gangs and petty theft. The two meet when Chen Nien walks by him being beaten up in an alleyway.

The film opens with students reacting to the suicide of one of their classmates, who has just jumped off the school’s railing into the courtyard. They gather around her body, phones in hand, recording the scene. But Chen Nien has a different reaction, and goes over to cover the girl’s body, a reaction that gets filmed and posted around. This puts her in contact with a young police detective (Yin Fang) who is investigating the role that bullying played in the girl’s death, and also makes her the next target of the very bullies who don’t want to be found culpable.

Chen Nien is under extreme pressure as she tries to prepare for college entrance exams, and asks Xiao Bei to help protect her from the school bullies, leading to a dark turn of events that threatens to derail both of their lives. The friendship between Chen Nien and Xiao Bei, which starts rough but blossoms into something more tender, is what underpins the film, leading to a fraught last act that builds up a decent amount of suspense as they try to protect each other from the legal system.

Due to the subject matter, Better Days is not always an easy film to watch, and it can be somewhat trying to get through, punctuated by disturbing depictions of bullying and sexual assault. The film also feels a bit bloated at 135 minutes, with the story becoming a little too convoluted as it goes along, bringing in different subplots and a somewhat fractured framing device. But, while it can be heavy-handed at times, the story’s anti-bullying message is important and generally effective

The Chinese censorship board forced Tsang to make several changes to the film before it was allowed to be released, including the addition of several propagandistic postscripts at the end, outlining how the Chinese government is putting a stop to school bullying. It feels forced and tacked on, but was also likely a requirement for the film to see the light of day. Despite this, Better Days is still able to raise some interesting questions about school bullying, the complicity of the school board, and the extreme pressures put on students in the Chinese school system.

While I personally found it to be a bit uneven, Better Days is still a decent albeit very bleak teen drama that has a lot going on in terms of the themes it addresses. The film is carried by good performances from its young leads Dongyu and Yee, whose engaging portrayals of these two characters are enough to keep us watching through its dark twists and turns.

Better Days is now available to rent on selected digital platforms.

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