You may not initially, intrinsically wonder too much about the title of “Better Days,” Hong Kong filmmaker Derek Tsang’s new movie, and a surprise nominee for Best International Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. It’s one of those titles we might expect to overlook even as credits roll—a combination of words that could mean everything and nothing in regard to the story contained within. But here, that changes by the 15-minute mark, when we’ve seen enough in the emotionally fraught recollections suddenly revisited by a young teacher to make us think, Are “Better Days” here or are “Better Days” to come? The title suddenly holds so much mystery, it almost teases you.
Such is Tsang’s loyalty to the grim and harrowing in his sixth feature that anything can seem better than what we’re seeing on the screen, anything has the potential to yield desperately needed catharsis for his characters. Less intentional is our discovering a sense of improvement in the movie itself, which struggles for most of its running time to turn a restless energy into something more meaningful.
“Better Days” marks an admirable but slightly overbearing effort to render superfluous the differences between the elegant and the inelegant in filmmaking. It often disposes of narrative focus and tidy translation of emotional truths, presumably to immerse us into the mindset of a protagonist for whom clarity and emotional truth is elusive. That protagonist would be Chen Nian (Dongyu Zhou), a teen studying for the all-important university admittance exams in the Chinese city of Anqiao, where intimidation is the lingua franca of a concrete metropolis so devoid of sunlight and geographical clarity we might think it to be an underground society.
That’s fitting for a movie that skirts dystopian boundaries in its moody environments, in how Chen’s passage into adulthood feels as though it will take mortal tests of character, in how the threat of being embarrassed or beaten by the class bully looms around the corner of the frame whenever she’s alone in it. “Better Days” likens all this to being a teenager in a modern world where compassion is scarce (“Only if you stand your ground will you prevail,” an instructor says, an unwittingly multi-pronged remark), punctuating the point with bruising violent encounters and flurries of quick cuts pitting the story’s various urgent elements against each other. At times, it’s engrossing. At others, it’s distractingly haphazard.
The clashing of these sensations, the movie might be saying, is also akin with the teen experience. Here is a 135-minute urban epic attempting to draw a medley of thematic connections within it – between dehumanization and triumph, between modernity and savagery, between objectivity and helplessness – and it’s difficult to deny the potent bitterness of what ultimately unfolds, even if Tsang ends in a questionably, drastically different place than where he begins.
“Better Days” opens with a well-meaning reprimand against the global issue of school bullying, and the motivation is clear enough as the story (written by Wing-Sum Lam, Yuan Li and Yimeng Xi, adapting Jiuyue Xi’s novel “In His Youth, In Her Beauty) lurches into motion with the harrowing suicide of a schoolmate on the campus. Skepticism abounds after Chen steps forward to cover the girl’s body, but why? The moment reads as one of compassion, though Chen is subsequently interrogated for what she knew or didn’t know about what her classmate was enduring. In a movie whose chronology constructs itself through memories, early flashbacks lead us to wonder whether this story is about guilt or the enabling through silence. Pointed and intriguing questions, yes, though the preferred method of disentangling the effects of bullying here is with a bluntness on part with the film’s subject matter. This is a movie with such a grim worldview, such an emotional desolation baked into each frame that we quickly learn to meet every well-meaning gesture with a raised eyebrow.
Over the course of the following two hours, “Better Days” will have expanded its scope far beyond its inciting death, traipsing into detective’s offices, personal vendettas, sociopolitical skepticisms, educational ambitions, unlikely infatuations. It’s no doubt a busy movie, and its most focused sequences come in the final act after 90 minutes of precursor material that feels closer to “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” in duration. But it comes at an expense. The issue of bullying is practically shunted aside upon the emergence of heavy-handed melodrama into the story, and it feels like Tsang hoisting up our only anchor of reality the further the screenplay dives into its labyrinth of subplots and do-or-die stress of exam preparation. Admittedly, that’s too simple a suggestion for a Western critic to make; the rigors and obsessiveness of Asia’s oft-criticized college-entrance-exam system make AP exams look like recess, and while Chen’s academic goals are the furthest thing from an American viewer’s mind when she’s being interrogated in the investigation of another teen’s death, there’s some rich metaphorical messaging to consider as her situation becomes increasingly perilous the closer the plot nears those climactic tests.
“Better Days” is a movie best viewed with flexible eyes. It toggles, with moderate efficiency, between being a study of a character and a study of societal dilemmas, and the moments of overlap sprinkled throughout tend to betray the screenplay as desperately searching for empathy in its endless folds. Rarely do its tangents find a middle ground between the broadly political and the dramatically internalized. But Tsang seems to welcome that. He seems to take pride in how unwieldy his work is, seems determined on leaving his audience as exhausted and emotionally stretched as Chen. As credits roll at the end of her visceral, marathon story, the film’s cast directly addresses – or reminds – the audience about our collective mission to halt bullying. It unfortunately translates as the tell-tale sign of a movie using that real-world issue to clumsily shape a narrative, instead of a narrative cleanly shaping itself around a real-world issue’s potentially traumatic aftermaths.
"Better Days" is available to rent now on VOD platforms. It's not rated.
Starring: Dongyu Zhou, Jackson Yee, Fang Yin, Ye Zhou
Directed by Derek Tsang
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