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Academic pressure is deadly in coming-of-age film ‘Better Days’

[Trigger warning: The film and this article delve into bullying and suicide. Note that this story also contains spoilers.]

From all the classroom pledges you were forced to recite, which one was the most sincere? It was probably about loyalty to the school, maintaining good character, or—in many Catholic schools—professing your faith in God. But in Chen Nian’s (Zhou Dongyu) high school, students have to shout this oath in the open: “I will not fail my parents! I will not disappoint my teachers!” 

In their environment, it’s not even a question of sincerity because they have no choice but to live with it in the first place. “Better Days” (2019), Hong Kong’s Oscars 2021 bid, leads us behind the scenes of this multilayered promise—and it doesn’t get granted despite a simple voice crack and verbal repetition. 

Directed by Derek Tsang, this cross-genre (coming-of-age, romance, drama, and crime) film pushes us into one hell of a pressure cooker a.k.a. a Chinese school two months before Gaokao, a two-day National College Entrance Examination (NCEE) that’s as future-defining as it’s dream-crushing. With the film’s aggressive cuts and unsettling score, we recognize and identify with the collective stress.

“Better Days” still from Metacritic

Among those trying to stay afloat is Chen Nian, an impoverished girl who also happens to be one of the class’ top students. The rest try to do the same, even if it means facing a stack of books bigger than their faces and hearing their teachers’ broken-record cry, “Score 600! Get into the university of your choice!” countless times a day. 

In this make-or-break period, it’s not surprising that Chen Nian’s head is never not full—and I don’t just mean with her academic knowledge. 

“You don’t need friends here,” Chen Nian answers the police officers who went to their school for an investigation on the death of Hu Xiaodie, a bullied classmate who recently jumped off a campus building. Chen Nian was the only person who showed concern during the incident, draping her jacket over Hu Xiaodie’s body. The school witnessed the gesture—which would turn her into the next target of bullies.

“Your ranking went up again this week,” says Wei Lai, the infamous abuser masquerading as a cool, popular kid. She continues to press Chen Nian with questions: “How did you manage to do so well? Want to join our study group?” Wei Lai’s clique is the audience of the torture, and the more Chen Nian flatly refuses, the more desperate Wei Lai’s voice grows (“Why not? I want to ask you a few English questions.”). Soon after, all hell breaks loose. 

Chen Nian gets photographed without her consent, hit in the comfort room, and even followed all the way to her house—to the point of assault. Envy among teenagers is already a dangerous matter, and while the mean girls’ actions remain unacceptable, we can’t deny that the pressure to excel under cruel academic standards is a big accomplice to this. 

Somewhere along the way, Chen Nian meets Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee), a young parentless street thug who’s her complete opposite: spontaneous, self-assured, and has lost his hope to dream. “I’m a guy with nothing, no brains, no money, no future,” he says, showing what putting formal education on a pedestal means to those who don’t have the privilege to attain it. But even if Bei’s life is directionless in society’s eyes, he proves to be gallant, selfless, and kind-hearted, especially when protecting Chen Nian.

“Better Days” still from Variety

But a kind heart is not a prerequisite to an even kinder world. In “Better Days,” cruelty is constant while the system is unjust. Academic pressure, now an even bigger monster, proves its ever-important role again. During Gaokao season, Chen Nian and Bei get involved in a crime that points them as killers of Wei Lai, influencing both of their fragile futures. But instead of immediately trying to “fix” this case and fight for herself, she focuses on the exam. 

After all, people like Chen Nian have no choice but to ride its wave. Excelling is more than a record to flex online or a tangible ego feeder. It’s her whole life; a special pass to hopefully lift herself and her mom—who’s continuously hunted down by the police for selling fake goods—from poverty and go to Beijing. It’s her sense of self in a place that has made her a walking ball of paranoia, hiding behind walls and squinting in the dark.

“Better Days” still from Little White Lies

And besides, who could she trust apart from Xiao Bei?  The police officer with fickle judgment? Or the teacher who appears to promote students’ wellbeing but is part of a school that offers no empathy to students—curious, growing, learning kids whom they treat as additions to their badge collection?  

Thanks to the deeply moving performance by Zhou Dongyu and Jackson Yee, plus the film team’s persistence in getting this film out there despite censorship, “Better Days” manages to land some punches. It has points for improvement— stemming from a lack of focus, the presence of cookie-cutter characters, and overelaboration—but it’s an overall gripping watch.

In how it was presented in text, bullying might be this film’s central message. But the brutal, unforgiving chase after excellence gave birth to all these layers. Both, however, desperately call for empathy rather than another pledge to avoid failure and disappointment. 

Note: Make sure to watch the post-credits scene.

Read more:

Why ‘Happy Old Year’ is my favorite visual essay on moving on
‘Dreams’ aren’t the end-all, be-all in ‘Soul’ (and that’s okay)
Stop beating yourself up if you’re not in your dream school 

“Better Days” header still from Letterboxd

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Jelou Galang
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