'Better Days' ('Shao nian de ni'): Film Review

Courtesy of Well Go USA
A hard-hitting drama about bullying slips into melodrama.

Derek Tsang’s hit youth drama is an exposé of bullying in Chinese high schools, where the pressure to achieve is lethal.

One of several Chinese films that were abruptly pulled from the Berlin Film Festival in February, Derek Kwok Cheung Tsang’s Better Days (Shao nian de ni) struggled to get domestic release in China, before going on to top the box office in November for several weeks running. This hair-raising tract against school gangs, whose vicious bullying drives one girl to suicide and another to murder, made its festival bow at the International Film Festival & Awards Macao. Its main attraction should be for youth audiences as it rolls out in limited offshore release through distribs like Well Go USA.

One supposes the Beijing censors were responsible for canceling the screening in Berlin’s Generation 14Plus section, but it’s hard to tell what might have rubbed them the wrong way. Perhaps bullying or high school pressure to achieve are social issues they would prefer not to have aired in public. Yet the film ends with the good news that the ministry of education has taken strong and effective measures against bullying over the last three years, drastically increasing penalties and punishments in schools.

Though not very subtle in presenting its thesis, the story is generally suspenseful and well-told by young HK actor and director Tsang (Soul Mate). It also points an accusing finger at the extraordinary pressure that high school students are under to score high on the Chinese equivalent of SAT tests and get into universities that count. And for good measure, there is a fantasy romance between the proper heroine and a scrappy guttersnipe played by Jackson Yee from the popular boy band TFBoys.

Serious student Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) comes from the poor side of town, where creditors hound her edge-of-the-law single mom. Cramming maniacally for the national Gaokao exams, which will determine the college choices and therefore the future lives of the students, she earns sympathy when she is the only person who goes to cover the face of a classmate who has succumbed to pressure and jumped to her death in the school courtyard. This pious act targets her as the bullies’ next victim.

She is waylaid after school on her long trudge home by three girls who wear malice on their faces. As the torment escalates, amplified by social media, Nian panics, fearing she’ll lose her concentration for the big exam. It’s then that she meets Xiao Bei (Yee), a street tough who knows how to take a beating. They form an unlikely alliance and Bei agrees to walk Nian to and from school as her unpaid bodyguard. Their trust grows and, with her mom on the lam for illegal trading, she moves into his shack under a highway viaduct, though they supposedly sleep separately.

Also on Nian’s side is a young police investigator (Yin Fang) who admires her courage in stepping out of regimented school behavior and indifference. However, her stubborn unwillingness to communicate with him is frustrating to watch. One day, when Bei isn’t around, she’s caught by the bullies who cut off her hair and strip her in a sickening scene of senseless violence. Even though the video gets posted online, Nian admirably refuses to give up her dreams and goes to class with shaven head held high.

The drama peaks when a schoolgirl is killed and buried in a shallow grave by the highway. Both Nian and Bei are implicated in the crime and forced to decide how far they’ll go out on a limb for each other. But coming into the home stretch, the story disappointingly loses its grip, particularly in a protracted scene of police interrogation.

Derek Tsang, who is the son of HK actor and producer Eric Tsang, has a feeling for his young protags that smooths over some narrative awkwardness. Dongyu (Love on the Hawthorn Tree) plays Nian as a girl mature beyond her years, whose introversion lends her an air of mystery and distinction, though it is a barrier to connecting emotionally with the audience. As the gold-hearted punk, Yee shows a touching vulnerability behind his braggadocio.  

Production companies: Goodfellas Pictures, Fat Kids Productions
Cast: Zhou Dongyu, Jackson Yee, Yin Fang, Huang Jue, Heliao Luyun, Liu Ran, Luo Junlin, Wu Yue
Director: Derek Kwok Cheung Tsang
Screenwriters:  Lam Wing-sum Lam, Li Yuan Li, Xu Yimen, based on a novel by Jiuyue Xi
Producer: Jojo Hui (aka Yuet-jan Hui)
Executive producers: Peter Ho-sun Chan
Director of photography: Yu Jing-pin
Production designer: Liang Honghu
Costume designer: Dora Ng
Editor: Zhang Yibo
Music: Varqa Buehrer
Venue: International Film Festival & Awards Macao
World sales: We Pictures
135 minutes