Chinese film “Better Days” is a familiar but compelling mixture of brutal school drama, sensitive coming-of-age tale, and unabashedly old-fashioned romance. Right from the beginning, you can clearly discern what you are going to get, but then you will find yourself caring more about its two very different main characters, and you will be surprised as willingly accepting its overwhelmingly tearful moments, which are accompanied with a moment of public service.
After the prologue scene set in 2015, the movie promptly moves back to when its adolescent heroine, Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu), was being strictly and relentlessly pushed along with many other schoolmates in her high school toward the upcoming national college entrance examination in 2011. Because this examination will considerably influence the course of the rest of their life in one way or another, everyone constantly feels pressured everyday, and we are not so surprised when one girl suddenly commits suicide on one day.
As everyone else in the school is shocked and amazed by what has just happened right in front of their eyes, Chen does a little act of compassion on the body of her dead schoolmate, and two cops coming to the school for investigating this suicide case are naturally interested in hearing more from her. Although she says she was not particularly close to that unfortunate girl, it is apparent that she knows more than she seems on the surface, and the cops, who try to be tactful with her as much as they can, soon becomes quite frustrated as she refuses to tell them more.
While Chen keeps focusing more on the examination preparation along with her the schoolmates, a hidden truth about her dead schoolmate is gradually revealed to us. Her dead schoolmate is actually the victim of the frequent bullying committed by three mean girls in their class, and Chen and many others in the class knew about that, but none of them tried to stop this soul-crushing cruelty because they did not want any problem on their hard and difficult way toward the examination.
Just because she had an interview with the cops, Chen soon finds herself becoming another target for those three mean girls, but, alas, there is no one to provide her any help or protection. There is one sympathetic boy in the class, but he does not do a lot for her while only showing a little concern and compassion. At her home, her mother is usually absent as searching for any chance to earn money and evading angry debt collectors who knock on the front door from time to time. Not so surprisingly, we later get a devastating moment when this shameful private information of hers is leaked into her high school.
As Chen desperately struggles to focus on her examination preparation despite all these and other torments thrown upon her, there comes an unexpected help. When she is going back to her home as usual during one night, she comes across a young street thug being beaten by a trio of other street thugs, and she and Xiao Bei (Jackson Lee) become associated with each other more than expected after their very unpleasant close encounter. When they come across each other again, he offers protection to her, and he even takes her to his shabby residence, which subsequently becomes a useful shelter for her when she cannot go to her residence due to those three mean girls, who become more malicious after being kicked out of the school due to her eventual testimony to the cops.
It goes without saying that Chen and Xiao become more attracted to each other as spending more time together, and there are several tender and sensitive moments showing their growing mutual affection, but, of course, they are reminded again and again of the harsh reality surrounding them. They are well aware that they will be inevitably separated once Chen passes the examination, but Xiao really wants her to get a better and happier life because she has been like a glimmer of sunshine in his tough and hopeless daily life, and he is quite determined to sacrifice himself as a lad who has nothing to lose.
As the screenplay by Lam Wing Sum, Lin Yuan, Xu Yimeng, and Nan Chen, which is adapted from Jiu Yuexi’s young adult novel “In His Youth, In Her Beauty”, enters the last act which revolves around the examination and one very serious criminal case, the movie accordingly becomes very melodramatic, but it is held well together by director Derek Tsang’s competent direction and the powerful performances from his two lead performers. Zhou Dongyu, who previously collaborated with Tsang in “SoulMate” (2016), is absolutely spellbinding with her expressive face which fluidly conveys many different emotional states barely hidden behind its seemingly docile façade, and you will be all the more amazed to learn that this wonderful performer, who will probably be regarded as the next great Chinese movie actress after Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, is actually 28 at present. On the opposite, Jackson Lee, who is in fact 20 at present, is also terrific as earnestly complementing his co-star, and his effortless chemistry with Zhou on the screen is more than enough to compensate for a few glaring weak elements in the film including its overlong ending, which is accompanied with a rather heavy-handed delivery of public message on bullying in schools.
Overall, “Better Days” is often tough to watch for good reasons, but it is a well-made work driven by two strong performances to be appreciated. Sure, this is indeed your average melodramatic stuff, but its story is presented well with considerable care and sensitivity like any other good melodrama, and I will not deny that I was touched a lot as watching its very last shot.