Soulmate helmer Derek Tsang encapsulates the lives of two teenagers teetering on the brink of society in his second feature, Better Days, reuniting with actress Zhou Dongyu in a prime performance next to the addition of TFBoys band member, actor Jackson Yee.
Far from an uplifting coming-of-age education drama of almost any kind, sophmore director Derek Tsang immediately puts this notion in the back seat within the first five minutes of Better Days. It hands the wheel over to the stoic cinema vérité of a young girl named Chen Nian (Zhou), unwittingly thrust into controversy and victimhood following the suicide of a fellow classmate.
Pressures are already surmounting for Chen and her classmates in lieu of an upcoming series of placement exams that could determine her hopeful future career choices. In the midst of this, she is suddenly subject to questioning by police for covering up the body in moment of compassion, albeit publicized in front of a yard full of social media-addicted onlookers taking pictures.
Little does Chen know that her actions begin to make her the target of the very trio of bullies she then suspects of causing the girl’s death. Her mom is hardly at home while struggling to make ends meet selling illicit goods while on the run from creditors, and it does little to stave off the attacks as they escalate.
One evening, a violent chance encounter between Chen and a street thug named Xiaobei (Yee) offsets the rough-edged start of an unexpected acquaintanceship that slowly forms into a unique, secret bond with the latter protecting the former, both to and from school. It’s a beautiful arrangement for a time as Tsang takes the viewer on a heartfelt and incredible journey of friendship, healing, and earnest, selfless young love.
Far be it for an absolute and happy ending to settle in, however, their bond also lasts just long enough before the true modus operandi of the story pulls the rug back out from under you to wake you up. Tragedy strikes in a third act twist of fate that will upend any expectations from the offset, carried by a nimble screenplay that aptly elucidates the ethereal connection we see between Chen and Xiaobei when their faith is further tested in the eyes of the law.
It’s an achievement indicative of Tsang’s ability to tell the kind of story he tells in Better Days, one that employs urban drama and crime in a coming-of-age setting with a dash of tainted, albeit innocent romance. What you get is the privilege of partaking on a journey of tranquil self-discovery, friendship and love, followed by a hefty serving of real world consequences, regardless of whether or not you think it’s fair. It’s enough to get you just a little pissed at one supporting character in this story, but again, it’s that compelling enough to earn Tsang your favor.
I’m quite curious as to what anyone thought of the book in comparison to this film, and so I’ll leave it to anyone with an opinion on this end to comment in any future threads from here on, be it our forums or or social media pages or even the comment section. As for Tsang’s own novel adaptation seen here clocked at nearly two hours and nine minutes along with six minutes of credits, you get your money’s worth.
I can’t remember exactly which film it was I first saw Zhou in, and I’ve seen her in maybe three or four as of this writing – including this film. All I can really add here is that I’ve grown fond of Zhou’s craft in the last few years, and her pairing with Yee on Better Days is a winning one.
Generated by solid performaces enveloped in a chilling millieu with an escapist flair that doesn’t misidentify itself, you get a film in Better Days that more than serves as an extenuant conversation pieces beyond the follies of young adulthood.
You get a film that challenges the dwindling role accountability plays amid the dichotomy between grown-ups in the workforce, and children climbing the proverbial steep ladder to make their families proud. You get a film that isn’t too cynical for its own good, and for that matter, you get film that’ll have you wishing you had someone the way Chen looks at Xiaobei. Surrounded by darkness and oftentimes imminent despair, it really is just that beautiful.
It’s also not really fair that the proliferation and release of this film has been stifled by any sort of gobbledygook reasoning since earlier this year. It’s a terrific film, and Well Go USA has it on deck for a stateside release, and I welcome you to visit the official website for more info.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.