'The Best Is Yet to Come' ('Bu zhi bu xiu'): Film Review | Venice 2020

Venice Film Festival
A lightning-fast, pleasingly idealistic first film from China.

A working-class boy (White K.) from the provinces who arrives in Beijing to become a journalist faces a major ethical decision in Wang Jing’s newspaper drama produced by Jia Zhang-ke.

There are still idealistic young writers out there aiming to transform the world, at least in China, and the newsroom drama The Best Is Yet to Come (Bu zhi bu xiu) catches the viewer up in the fast-paced story of an untutored youth from the provinces who breaks a scoop on hepatitis B. It’s entertaining to see made-in-Hollywood genre codes from All the President’s Men to The Post reworked in the exotic setting of a big Beijing daily during the heyday of print journalism, in a country one normally doesn’t associate with investigative reporting. Wang Jing’s rousing directing debut, shot in rough and ready indie style, bowed in the Venice Horizons and TIFF’s Discovery sidebar.

Wang learned his trade at the side of director Jia Zhang-ke (who produces here with Tang Yan), having served as Jia’s assistant director on festival hits A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart and Ash Is Purest White. The Best Is Yet to Come is a shot of pure energy with none of the master’s graceful refinement or uneasy gaze into the future. In fact, inspired by a true story, the rise of outsider Han Dong (played by social media star White K., a.k.a. Bai Ke) from earnest intern to front page journalist can only be read as a positive gloss on a better China to come.

The English title (chosen, one imagines, before it was turned into a meme by Kimberly Guilfoyle at the Republican National Convention) echoes the protag’s optimism and tenacity. The time is 2003 and Beijing is going full speed ahead after China contained a SARS outbreak. Han Dong, a factory worker from the provinces, has come to the big city without money or a residence permit along with his girlfriend Xiao Zhu (Miao Miao) and best friend Zhang Bo (Song Yang). At a fascinating, over-crowded “job fair,” interviewers laugh at his aspiration to become a journalist. He’s a high-school dropout. Yet somehow his talent is noticed and he's taken on as an intern at the Jingcheng Times under the wing of tough veteran writer Huang Jiang (Zhang Songwen).

The film runs us through the greenhorn’s first two scoops. His mentor fights for and gets the editor’s okay to investigate rumors that there’s been a cave-in at a big mine. In dirty clothes, Han Dong infiltrates a sea of distraught relatives of the miners who have been killed and obtains proof that the mine owner (a cameo by Jia Zhang-ke) is doling out hush money to keep the disaster from being looked into by the authorities. His first byline is followed by an assurance that he will be hired by the paper, and he and Xiao Zhu excitedly prepare to move to a decent apartment. These turn out to be famous last illusions, of course.

The next big story comes together through Han Dong’s research into a huge medical scam. At the time, due to outdated laws and beliefs about HBV transmission, any Chinese diagnosed with hepatitis B was forbidden to work or attend school. While investigating a racket of doctors issuing false health certificates to these patients, Han Dong discovers his pal Zhang Bo is a carrier, like so many other innocents. Realizing that his scoop is bound to have devastating effects on them, Han Dong finds himself at a crossroads between his dream of a high-profile career and a moral imperative to stop the presses.

The fast-moving story goes deeper than a pure thriller, as Wang Jing focuses on the faces of his characters in all their anxiety and human dignity. Song Yang, whose proud Zhang Bo is on his third attempt to overcome discrimination and get into grad school, portrays the most moving case. Also well cast is White K. in the main role. His hypnotic eyes say what his coolly immobile face does not and keep the audience behind him all the way.

Shot within the confines of a crowded, busy screen, the film boasts tech work from top Chinese cinematographer Yu Lik-wai and Japanese composer Yoshihiro Hanno, raising the artistic temperature. Editor Matthieu Laclau, another Jia Zhang-ke contributor, gives the indie a dynamic pace that never flags.  

Production companies: Momo Pictures, Fabula Entertainment
Cast: White K, Miao Miao, Zhang Songwen, Song Yang
Director: Wang Jing
Screenwriters:  Huang Wei, Hwong Minmin, Chen Chengfeng, Li Jingrui
Producers: Tang Yan, Jia Zhang-ke
Director of photography: Yu Lik-wai
Editor: Matthieu Laclau
Production designer: Liu Weixin
Costume designer: Li Hua
Music: Yoshihiro Hanno
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
World sales: Rediance
115 minutes