Better Days is a Chinese film about love, bullying, suicide, rape and murder… but mostly love. Adapted from a Young Adult novel (by Xi Jiuyue), it uses the relationship between a prim high school girl and a thug from the wrong side of the tracks as its skeleton key to access other, more off-limits areas of social import.
Don’t worry if you’re only interested in the love story, though, because that’s what Better Days is mostly interested in too, in spite of its protestations. Which start early on with the suicide of a pupil who throws herself from several floors up into the internal courtyard below at the school where Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) is a student. What was the name of the dead girl? Why did she do it? Was anyone else involved? All barely addressed before the focus slips conclusively onto Nian, who has blamelessly found herself the target of a campaign of bullying led by the Chinese version of the High School Plastics, led by pretty Wei Lai (Zhou Ye).
Was Wei Lai the reason for the other girl’s suicide? Possibly, but we don’t go there either. Instead there’s a backstreet meet cute to be arranged, between Nian and local street thug Bei, an urchin with a heart of gold who elects to become Nian’s shadowy minder.
An opposite sides of the tracks romance of sorts develops. He fancies the pants off her, though realises her trajectory is going to propel her to a good university and out of the shithole where they both currently live. She fancies him too, though her focus on getting good grades and into a prestigious university is all-consuming. The relationship is chaste, the longing is palpable.
Poverty, the intensely pressured school environment, the fact that Nian’s mother cannot scrape a living where she is and has to work away from home, all get enough of an airing to provide authentic colour without ever becoming too much of a digression.
The relationship is central to the success of the film. Him the cocky self-assured older guy; her the youthfully vulnerable one. I was surprised to discover that Jackson Yee, who plays Bei, is around 18 while Zhou Dongyu, who plays Nian, is in fact 27. However, realities to one side, the older-guy, younger-girl illusion remains intact throughout. It helps that Zhou is convincing as the fragile, unworldly bookworm, and that Yee has charisma to burn. Zhou Ye, as tormentor in chief Wei Lai, also needs a big shout – it’s a thanklessly unpleasant role which she takes on without vanity. Prepare to hiss.
The Spectacular Now – troubled older guy, bookish younger girl – might well be in the sights of director Derek Tsang, and the impression is of a film stylistically leaning towards the US market. Its soundtrack in particular, by Chinese-born, California-trained Varqa Buehrer, looks west rather than east. It’s lush and gorgeous and the same can be said for the visuals (by DP Yu Jing Pin), which switch colour palette depending on whether we’re at the bullying or loved-up end of affairs.
Blame the YA origin of the story for the fact that things get a bit melodramatic towards the end, as love, exams, payback, the police and noble self-sacrifice all start to interact and several giant plot leaps all crowd together.
To the end Better Days maintains that it’s about bullying, with solemn statistics rolled out ahead of the final credits, followed by an exhortation that we must all fight this scourge. Perhaps that’s just there to lay a false scent trail for the Chinese censor – the harsh though high-achieving Chinese school system seems as blameworthy as any cabal of nasty girls – or perhaps it’s to duck the charge that this is just a boy meets girl story of love from opposing sides of the tracks. That’s how I watched it, and how I enjoyed it.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021