VOD film review: Better Days
Ivan | On 24, Apr 2021
Director: Derek Tsang
Cast: Dongyu Zhou, Ye Zhou, Jackson Yee, Fang Yin
Where to watch Better Days online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
“This is our playground. This was our playground. This used to be our playground.” So says Chen Nian (Dongyu Zhou) as she gets a classroom of students to recite the tenses of the English language. She explains the differences between the two past tenses, describing the modal verb as having a nostalgic quality.
This elegant, thoughtful opening frames the core of the nostalgically titled Better Days, which flashes back to Chen Nian’s time studying when she was young. It soon becomes clear that her own schooldays were not better at all, beginning with the death of Hu Xiaodie, a classmate who was being bullied by a group led by Wei Lai (Ye Zhou). When Chen Nian sees Hu’s body, she covers it out of respect – and, in doing so, makes herself the next target for Wei Lai.
What ensues is an often harrowing snapshot of bullying in high schools, performed superbly and powerfully by Dongyu Zhou, with excellent support by Ye Zhou’s cruel Wei Lai and a host of other pupils who do nothing to intervene. It unfolds in the run-up to the national university entrance exams, which the school touts as a way to give everyone an equal footing in the world, but the screenplay – adapted by Wing-Sum Lam, Yuan Li, Yimeng Xu and Nan Chen from Jiuyue Xi’s novel In His Youth, In Her Beauty – makes it clear that there’s no such fair shot on offer: this is a study of systemic complacency and complicity, as well as class differences, with the wealthy Wei Lai looking down upon, and feeling threatened by, talented pupils from less advantaged backgrounds, such as Chen Nian.
As things escalate to darker extremes, Chen Nian’s path crosses with criminal Xiao Bei (the fantastic Jackson Yee), who ends up providing protection to her from her tormentors. But their blossoming relationship also brings with it attention from police detectives – Jue Huang and Fang Yin – not least because Chen Nian tries to report Wei Lai’s gang to them.
All of this sounds like a lot to fit into one story, but director Derek Tsang has a remarkable grasp of tone and genre, confidently segueing from noir-tinged thriller to young adult melodrama with a gorgeous use of colour and lighting. The result twists through its carefully assembled plot with heartfelt heft, crafting a moving story of unlikely allies amid the survival-of-the-fittest pressure of China’s exam-driven education system. Back in the present day, Chen Nian tells her class that the construct “used to be” carries “a sense of loss”. Better Days captures that melancholic note with accomplished storytelling – and concludes with a rallying cry to make sure such loss doesn’t continue to impact future generations.