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School of Hard Knocked

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MOVIE REVIEW
Better Days (2019)

Repping Hong Kong in the Best International Feature category at the 2021 Academy Awards, “Better Days” is emblematic of the current state of Chinese filmmaking. Its connection to Hong Kong is peripheral at best: Its Canadian director, Derek Tsang, is the son of Hong Kong entertainer titan Eric Tsang. The Jiu Yuexi novel that serves as the film’s basis has been widely accused by Chinese netizens of plagiarizing works of Japanese mystery writer Keigo Higashino. Starring the immensely popular Chinese actress Zhou Dongyu and Mandopop idol Jackson Yee, “Better Days” does seem unusually polished for a Chinese commercial release – meaning it has that Hong Kong gloss lightyears removed from the Fifth Generation fare that China is mostly known for Stateside.

The film gets off to a rather rocky start, with a series of sequences that require increasing suspension of disbelief. Following a classmate’s suicide, Chen Nian (Ms. Zhou) quickly finds herself becoming the target of relentless harassment and bullying. As if that isn’t enough trouble for her, she tries and fails to thwart a group of hoodlums ganging up on Xiao Bei (Mr. Yee). Subsequently, Xiao Bei offers Chen Nian protection, freeing her to concentrate on the grueling college entrance exams.

Though many films have tackled schoolyard bullying, the unflinching depiction in “Better Days” is among the more memorable ones such as “Moonlight.” Although much is shown through suggestion, it illustrates a level of cruelty and sociopathy in the bullies not articulated in most films.

As it progresses, the film becomes absorbing and assured. More than once, "Better Days” deliberately withholds information for a surprise reveal that muddles the innocence of its protagonist. While the twists and turns do work to great effect, they also kind of reduce a serious treatise on the traumatic impact of bullying to a generic genre exercise.

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