Hong Kong’s own, Derek Tsang, delivers an ambitious - if slightly bloated - thriller-cum-melodrama; the emotive Better Days (2019) centers on the almost militaristic furor leading up to the lionized ‘Gaokao’, China’s university entry exams. Such intense competition purportedly fashions bullies and the bullied; as nationwide, teenagers strive to secure first choice university slots.
The film’s script busily jams talking points, styles, and twists into its substantial runtime. For the most part, it works. Some themes, however, are neglected as the film crisscrosses from social realism to melodrama to police procedural. For instance, Chen Nian’s relationship with her mother is complicated by an unforgiving shame culture, yet this subplot is underdeveloped. Similarly, online life’s desensitizing, viral nature is only lightly touched on in the opening scenes. The film is strongest when it probes deeper, but it repeatedly falls back on more conventional tropes to progress the story.
Thanks to Tsang’s meticulous direction, the film’s universe evokes a haunting realism in its tight framing. Locales matter, here - giving anima to the narrative and drawing distinctive lines between the socio-economic realities of the principle characters. Tsang lingers on establishing shots and contorted facial expressions, often further capturing the mental states of the protagonists via the use of lighting.
The actors - at times - carry the script, with both Jackson Yee and Zhou Dongyu simulating genuine chemistry, each actor brings something to the table. Yee, the conflicted rogue, and Dongyu, the highschooler swiftly coming-of-age, become entwined in a unexpectant love. The mesmerizing Zhou Ye stands out as a wickedly sociopathic foil, Wei Lai, a character that will stop at nothing to meet her parent’s lofty expectations.
Better Days is a solid offering that faced spirited competition in the foreign film category of the Oscars. Although not as slick as the eventual winner, Another Round, the film has undoubtedly contributed to the ascension of Chinese cinema.