By Diana Cheng
AAP Film and Arts Writer
“Better Days” (少年的你) is one of five features shortlisted for the race to the Best International Feature Film at The 93rd Academy Awards on April 25, 2021. Representing Hong Kong, the film is helmed by Hong Kong actor-director Derek Tsang (曾國祥), son of famous father Eric Tsang (曾志偉) in the entertainment industry. For the younger Tsang, he has earned reputation in his own right with his last film “Soulmate” (2016) and now as “Better Days” has reaffirmed.
The feature is only the third film to represent Hong Kong to be nominated in this Oscar category, a lapse of twenty-seven years. The two previous ones were directed by mainland Chinese directors, Chen Kaige’s “Farewell my Concubine” in 1994 and Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern” in 1992, as nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at that time.
“Better Days” is based on the 2016 novel “In His Youth, in Her Beauty” (少年的你,如此美麗) by the popular online YA writer Jiu Yue Xi (玖月晞). With the main subject being school yard bullying, the movie fuses two genres effectively, the first half a Platonic romance leading to the second half, a crime mystery. In the process, viewers see young love slowly brew into altruistic passion. The director shifts the film’s focus on one schoolgirl’s ordeal and expands it into a suspense, crime mystery in the latter part, appealing to a more general, mature audience.
The star of “Soulmate” (2016) Zhou DongYu plays Chen Nian, a student enrolled in the graduating year of a high school that specializes in intense preparation for China’s two-day National College Entrance Examination. Students go through torturous pressures to succeed, as their acing the Exam will lead to a prestigious university, a good job and a bright future. Chen feels this burden most acutely as her mother (Yue Wu) depends on her to get out of her own financial woes. Chen’s mother deals with illegal goods and has to hide from debtors pounding on her door, leaving Chen to fend for herself.
Chen’s dream is to attend Beijing University, which is highly probable as she is a top student, if only she can hold out the bullying by Wei Lai (Zhou Ye) and her gang. The suicide of a fellow student right in the school yard, a victim of Wei’s, has shaken her emotionally but not deterred her resolve to focus on the Exam. With that goal in mind, Chen is determined to endure for as long as she can, that is, until she breaks.
While walking home from school one night Chen is caught in a street fight that pushes her into the path of small-time thug Xiaobei (Jackson Yee, boy band idol in his breakout role). While the trajectory of both of their lives cannot be more divergent, Chen being a bully victim pulls them together. As days go by, dreams are shared and a pact is made: Chen will graduate from university and pursue her dream to protect the world, while Xiaobei will protect her to make her dream come true.
Pacing is generally fast and editing clear, the film draws viewers in right from the start. Both stars deliver exceptionally well, a major asset of the feature. When it comes to melodramatic effects, however, I subscribe to less is more. Here I’m thinking of the numerous close-ups of flowing tears, with the camera staying a bit too long maybe to elicit those from the audience. Nevertheless, the latter part where suspense is well planted by Tsang with agile camera work, the thrills override any deficiency. Yin Fang as relentless Detective Zheng Yi trying to get to the bottom of the crime mystery enhances the storytelling.
“Better Days” was pulled at the last minute from its premiere at Berlinale in 2019. According to media reports, it was likely due to China’s censorship. The social issues painted in the movie may be too harsh a reality to expose to the outside world, such as school bullying, extreme pressures from the College Entrance Exam, parents and families being part of the social problems. Its original Chinese premiere in June later was also delayed. Eventually it was released in October 2019 and broke global box office records in its opening weekend.
As for the twist in the denouement, some netizens had accused the YA author Jiu of plagiarizing Japanese mystery writer Keigo Higashino’s “The Devotion of Suspect X”. For me, that twist is reminiscent of a film starring the popular actor Patrick Tse (Tse Yin) in the 1960’s, which later was remade by John Woo called “A Better Tomorrow” (英雄本色 , 1986). As the title echoes, “Better Days” could well have been Tsang’s expanded homage to Woo. Regardless, Tsang’s storytelling is riveting and the film deserves recognition in its own right.