Director – Derek Tsang – 2019 – China – 12A – 135m
A bullied exam student is protected from her tormentors by and seeks solace in the company of a small time street criminal – from the London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF), on now, and Hong Kong’s entry for the 2020/2021 Oscars
The combination of impending exams and bullying by her peers causes student Hu to throw herself off the rooftop of a school building. Feeling guilty because she never stood up for the girl, fellow student Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) covers the dead girl’s face to protect it from prying eyes and smartphone cameras. The next thing Chen knows, the late girl’s three bullies, led by the well-heeled and vindictive Wei Lai (Zhou Ye) have it in for her.
Not that Chen is having an easy time of it anyway. In the short term she’s being questioned by police about Hu’s death and like everyone else there’s the huge pressure of impending Gaokao university entrance exams, doing well in which is packaged in school rally chants as not failing the country or your parents. Her single parent mum (Wu Yue), beset with parental inadequacy as she tries to scrape a living from selling illegal goods away from home, has successfully convinced Chen that studying hard and getting excellent exam results is a way out of the poverty trap in which the family find themselves. Chen is smart and diligent with her school work, but introverted and not particularly social.
Still, she could do without being thrown down the steps in school or being beaten up when walking outside. This being the internet age, the bullies film their tormenting of her and post it online. Not that it’s just her: the film’s view of the world is “bully or be bullied” and one day when Chen fails to avoid a gang of youths beating up Xiao Bei (Jackson Lee) she is told to kiss him to ensure they don’t inflict worse than they already have. To the youths’ delight she complies then helps Bei get home after his attackers have dispersed. A small time criminal living on his wits, Bei offers to escort her for protection, making this a more or less free service after she tells him she can’t afford it. As days and months pass, an unconsummated, romantic bond grows between the two of them.
The bullying scenes (and there are lots of them) are genuinely harrowing and make you question the psychology of why bullies do what they do and why their hangers-on go along with it. After Chen reports an incident, she gets a cop’s phone number to call if she needs help, but the one occasion she calls him he doesn’t answer because he’s otherwise occupied – whilst she’s hurtling along walkways and down stairs fleeing from the bullies. What little support the well-intentioned authorities can provide for the likes of Chen proves woefully inadequate.
Adapted from Xi Jiuyue’s novel In His Youth, In Her Beauty, the film is way too long for its own good – some judicious script editing would not have gone amiss – but for all that, it still paints an engrossing if bleak picture of both the effects of bullying on its victims and contemporary Chinese society’s obsession with getting good exam grades. Hong Kong has entered the film for this years Oscars.
Better Days plays in the London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF), taking place right now.
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2029 (93rd) Oscars.