Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.
Earlier this year, Derek Tsang’s Better Days was abruptly pulled from its intended premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. One of a number of such high profile cancellations, the withdrawal was supposedly for “technical reasons” but widely assumed to be a last-minute decision by the latest version of China’s film censorship regime, which last year adopted new layers of guidelines and processes to an already-opaque and unpredictable system. Still, the film was apparently approved for commercial release this past summer, when it was to debut both in China and in North America. And then it was cancelled again, three days before its opening. And again, no official reason was given (speculation has been that it has to do with the film’s harsh depicting of teenage bullying, but no outsider really knows). And then, out of nowhere, on October 22nd it was suddenly announced that the film would be released in China after all, three days later, on October 25th. Despite the short notice, the film did very well in its opening weekend: its $81.5 million gross beat out Maleficent: Mistress of Evil to top the global box office. And now, on November 8th, it will be released across North America by Well Go.
Better Days is Tsang’s follow-up to his 2016 debut Soulmate, which earned rave reviews and serious awards consideration. That film, a touching and clever melodrama about a 20-year friendship starring actresses Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun, showed a strong, professional eye. It’s an extremely tasteful movie, full of beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes having emotional breakdowns to beautiful music. If it’s ultimately mostly of interest for the strong performances of Ma and Zhou (they shared the Golden Horse Award for Best Actress), who have since gone on to become two of the best young actresses in China, it showed that Tsang was a director of potential interest. And his connections within the film industry (he is the son of actor-producer-director Eric Tsang, and both his films have been produced by Peter Chan) ensure that he’ll always have the resources needed to make films of a certain quality. But this can be a double-edged sword, as Better Days shows.
Zhou Dongyu plays a high school student studying for the national college entrance exam (the actress is 27, but she’s not entirely unbelievable as a teenager). It’s a test kind of like our SAT, but if the difference between passing and getting into a good college meant the difference between a life of bourgeois ease and a life of extreme and brutal poverty. As the film begins, one of Zhou’s classmates throws herself off a school building, the victim of a relentless bullying campaign by a trio of other girls. As Zhou becomes their next victim, she befriends a young hoodlum (pop idol Jackson Lee) who tries to protect her from the mean girls. The develop a (unbelievably) chaste romance, and in the back half of the film take turns trying to protect each other from the people that bully them or want to arrest them or both. What begins as a social realist exploration of the psychology of cruelty in high school becomes, in the end, a romantic tragedy, with hero and heroine taking turns sacrificing themselves for the person they love.
Ringo Lam’s School on Fire, along with other, lesser tales of teenage cruelty like Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-chou or Heiward Mak’s High Noon, are obvious reference points for Better Days. But School on Fire grows out of the hyperbolic Heroic Bloodshed cinema of late '80s Hong Kong, with its relentless momentum, graphic violence, and nihilist despair. It’s heroine is cruelly oppressed at every turn by the violence of her peers and the impotence of the adults in her life (parents, teachers, police) to do anything about it, the scenario breathlessly pushing her (and us) towards the inevitably incendiary conclusion. Lam’s film is a scathing indictment of the adult world, blaming its tragedy squarely on the systems that are supposed to help and support children.
But Better Days is focused inward, on its two main characters. Their isolation is what fuels their victimhood, while institutional representatives are, at worst, inattentive to their plight. Teachers and cops are well-meaning, but the kids don’t trust them and so don’t confide when they need help. The parents are absent (Lee’s mother has been missing for some time, Zhou’s is trying to make a living selling black market cosmetics in some other city), but not especially cruel. The pressure on the test-taking students is palpable: Tsang lingers over the regimental nature of their work (an early morning synchronized salute and oath to not fail, for example), and there are the barest hints of a class divide given that the lead bully comes from a rich and probably abusive family (compare to the nuanced and clever indictment of the rich/poor gap in Nattawut Poonpiriya’s test-taking thriller Bad Genius). But rather than the feeling of a trap from which youth cannot escape, their hopelessness seems to be as much a matter of their own choice as a deadly flaw in the social structure.
Zhou and Lee repeatedly fail to ask for help from the good-natured cops who (surely we’re told) want only to help them. It could be inferred that Zhou’s refusal to make friends with the other kids is the cause of her isolation, and thus bullying. After all, we see dozens if not hundreds of other kids who aren’t being bullied. The failure to connect the bullying to any coherent social problem forestalls any hope of a solution, and betrays a lack of interest in the subject other than as a vehicle for make the heroes suffer. But this approach, apolitical as it ultimately is, serves the film well in its second half, as the film morphs from social problem drama to an operatic love story about two damaged youths against the world.
In other words, Better Days takes a hot-button Current Issue and drains all the potential politics out of it in favor of personal melodrama. Similarly, where School on Fire takes a blunt, neo-realist approach to its drama, prowling through the back alleys and nightclubs of Hong Kong as if growing out of a garbage strewn street itself, Better Days is relentlessly tasteful, neatly composed, and decorous. Even Lee’s shack on the edge of town is lovingly lit and cozy: it looks less like the lair of a homeless teen criminal than a heart-warming cabin in the country.
That the film works as well as it does is to Tsang’s (and Zhou and Lee’s) credit, taking a movie that might have been School on Fire and turning it into A Moment of Romance or even The Butterfly Lovers is surely some kind of accomplishment. But it’s chilling that a film that so relentlessly avoids exploring the social problem at its heart, that so resists indicting Chinese authorities or culture or class for the pathologies among its youth, can still be deemed too politically controversial to be released at home or abroad, if only for a few months.
This is made explicit by the coda to the current release version of the film. I was able to see the film in its original version before it was pulled this summer, and the new release has some not insignificant changes: many of the most graphic images have been excised, such as any shot of the body of the initial suicide victim, and several shots of Zhou being bullied, and a coda has been tacked on to the end that is very obviously forced onto it by political pressures. It shows a now grown-up Zhou teaching an English class, repeating a line from the Madonna song “This Used to be My Playground” while noticing a sad girl in her class, apparently a victim of bullying. A title card sets this in 2015, and explains that Zhou was convicted and served four years in prison, which means the events of the film we just saw took place as much as ten years earlier (though I don’t think the phone technology in the film supports that notion). Then on-screen text outlines the various laws and initiatives the Chinese government has enacted since 2015 to prevent bullying, accompanied by photos of sunny and happy high school students. It’s appallingly maudlin and undermines any sense of political relevance the film hadn’t already sacrificed on the altar of romantic tragedy. Some bad stuff happened once, they tell us, but the government fixed it and if we all work together nothing bad need ever happen again.