Final exams have rarely taken a heavier toll than they do in Better Days, an arresting teen-oriented story that cranks Chinese scholastic competitiveness into the realm of murderous melodrama. A major success in China, where it grossed over $220M in the wake of its November 2019 release, Chinese-born, Canadian-raised director Derek Tsang’s take on the YA novel source, In His Youth, In Her Beauty, by Jiu Yuexi, elevates a distressing tale of lethal teen behavior into an involving account of youthful malice and resilience. Widely available on various broadcast sites, the Hong Kong film has been shortlisted for this year’s International Feature Oscar race.
Perhaps more than in any other country, students’ professional fates in China are determined by the gaokao, the equivalent of the National College Entrance Exam in the U.S. For Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu, who is actually 29 but here gets away with playing an 18-year-old), success is vital; her poor single mother lives elsewhere and it’s entirely up to Nian to make her own way in life.
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But the very self-reliant and self-contained Nian has her work cut out for her quite apart from academics; the sinister rich girls in Anqiao, a city of some 1.3 million in Eastern China, make the bratty babes in Mean Girls look like amateurs by comparison. At the outset, a 12th grader has just committed suicide, sparking an investigation, and already the nasty rich girl crew has set its sights on the next victim, Nian. The tip-off: Returning to her desk, Nian finds a pool of blood on her chair.
While on paper this may sound like recycled teen horror fare, Zhou and director Tsang downplay the sensationalism, choosing instead to invest the drama with sufficient gravity and realism to bestow it with acceptable credibility. Slight-of-stature Nian lives in a depressingly grim little hellhole and is obliged to walk home in her school uniform after dark through distinctly unsavory neighborhoods. Above and beyond the pressure of her studies and exam prep, her daily life is a trial, to the extent that you’re almost convinced that the girl barely stands a chance.
When another teenage death occurs, Nian is implicated just has she has become involved in a tentative relationship with good-looking ne’er-do-well biker Liu Beishan (Jackson Yee, of the boy band TY Boys). He’s a strange, disheveled, good-looking dude, one who inspires no confidence at all, to the extent that you wonder why the hitherto prim and correct Nian would consider any kind of relationship with him at all. He would also seem to be an ill-advised distraction when it comes to Nian concentrating, as she must, on her exams.
But her need is real, as she faces obstacles on every front — no money, no family nearby, vicious schoolmates, no safety net of any kind and a girl squad that actually wants to kill her — any one of which would be enough to bring nearly any teenager to the precipice. As a result, both Nian and Beishan lower their masks just enough to help one another and become reasonably dimensional characters as a result. About half-way through, Nian becomes something of an extreme Mad Max character when she lets Beishan shave her head, a freakish thing to do in her uniformed academic environment.
The film hinges on your belief that Nian, despite all the roadblocks in her way, will maintain the fortitude to keep it all together and soldier her way to success, both with her tormentors and on her exams. Without asking for it, the frail-but-fierce-looking Zhou convinces you that she’s got what it takes to survive almost anything put in her way. There’s not an uncertain moment in her performance.
When the tough leader of the nasty girls turns up dead and Nian becomes the prime suspect, things take a melodramatic turn that would seem like a bridge too far when it comes to Nian being able to properly concentrate on her studies. Other knotty developments further combine to spread the assorted crises out somewhat amorphously rather than to gather them into a single dynamic bundle. Even so, by this time one has become convinced that this physically meek but fiercely focused young woman can do anything she sets her mind to, from acing her exam to prevailing over teenage villains or crafty cops.
Much like its heroine, Better Days is both elegant and streetwise, an appealing combination. Director Tsang, whose two previous features were Soul Mate (2016) and Lover’s Discourse (2010), has orchestrated the action and visuals with confident elan. Toward the end, there are simply too many issues — from Nian’s legal complicity to her ability to concentrate sufficiently on her exam — floating around to pull them altogether with sufficient plausibility, and it does go on rather too long.
All the same, the combination of elemental ingredients here presents a vibrant look as diverse aspects of modern China — academia, poverty, adolescence, criminality, aspirational striving, family and lack of same — that keep the film pumping on multiple cylinders at all times. It’s an absolutely serious look at youth with assorted semi-sensationalistic societal trappings; an oddly effective combination of red meat and popcorn.
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