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Better Days
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by Jay Seaver

"Tests close to the top of its class."
4 stars

You can tell when a film and filmmaker are just better than their peers, as was the case with Derek Tsang's previous film "SoulMate", the best in a wave of seemingly dozens of Chinese movies about people looking back on their high school years. That's a description that could technically apply to "Better Days", especially with the bookends made to satisfy the censors, although it's a far harsher film than those, but effectively so: Tsang brings something visceral to his story of bullying and revenge where all too many might be satisfied to make it easier for the squeamish to grapple with.

It's 60 days until "gaokao", the two-day college admissions test that can determine the direction of a young person's life, and Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) is under as much stress as any of her peers at an Anquiao City cram school, if not more - her mother Zhou Lei (Wu Yue) is deep in debt and often away trying to sell knock-off cosmetics in a larger city and she is relentlessly bullied, primarily by a trio of girls led by Wei Lai (Zhou Ye). She's understandably turned inward but she's a good kid - when a classmate in similar position commits suicide, she's the one that steps forward to cover the body and talks to Detective Zheng Yi (Yin Fang), and when she sees a boy beaten up on her way home, she pulls out her phone to call the police. They're on her before anyone can come, but Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee YangQianXi) is grateful, and starts looking out for her.

And the bulk of it is pretty darn great, with Zhou Dongyu and Jackson Yee great at essaying these kids who had been failed by adults finding something in each other without making it nicer than it should be. Tsang and the stars very deliberately don't make their romance something beautiful amidst the ugliness of their lives, but instead something that often just barely peeks out of their wariness. They capture how this extreme vulnerability can lead to hardening and closing off, with Zhou especially spending much of her time in the sort of tense posture that lets the audience feel how much she's holding back because she recognizes that letting something out will only create more trouble, but still communicating a lot without using many words.

Not that she has to; Tsang is admirably unflinching in his portrayal of bullying, not shrinking from the violence but also making sure to twist the knife during the abusive scenes that outsiders often label as "pranks. He's careful not to leave a crack for dismissal or rationalization to get in, as often happens; there are no scenes of adults saying it builds character or even the implication that surviving this makes Chen Nian stronger. Indeed, it's impressive how there's nothing celebratory or maudlin about her suffering - this does not make her a better person or signify her goodness; it's just awful and pointless. Tsang is careful to make sure that the film never quite reaches the point where the audience feels that experiencing it vicariously is also just piling-on, maybe softening things a bit where he can - he's careful not to show Hu Xiaodie clearly after she kills herself, focusing on shocked onlookers, and the neighborhood becomes less dangerous and more cozy once Chen Nian and Bai have met.

The movie eventually starts to flounder as the filmmakers seemingly work hard on arriving at the perfect, proper ending - something closer to the forefront of one's mind because we're seeing it now, rather than several months ago, with the government both cancelling and approving its release on short notice and with some changes. There's also arguably one twist too many, but even in that extended last act, there's something to see, as the idealistic young detective realizes just what a morass these crimes can be; Yin Fang is quietly impressive as a detective allowed to be both uncertain and maybe misguided in his certainty. It's a neat bit of work that keeps a viewer who was invested in what came before from groaning too much that the story is over, so let it end.

There may be a better version of "Better Days" to be found in its raw footage, or maybe not. This one has become a fair-sized hit in China and deserves to be; like Tsang's previous film, it's made with a level of skill that you don't always see in these mainstream imports. Even when it stumbles a bit, it's impressively intense and avoids hand-wringing.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32969&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/12/19 21:43:35
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Directed by
  Kwok Cheung Tsang

Written by
  Wing-Sum Lam
  Yuan Li
  Yimeng Xu

  Dongyu Zhou
  Jackson Yee
  Fang Yin
  Jue Huang

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