“This used to be our playground. This was our playground. Does anyone know the difference between was and used to be?” An adult Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) quizzes her students, who can’t quite answer. It’s a distinction many native English speakers might find hard to articulate, except to say that the surprisingly poetic solution Chen Nian supplies feels right: used to be “carries with it a sense of loss.”
The young English teacher looks wistful as she says this, but in Derek Kwok Cheung Tsang’s gripping, superbly performed melodrama — a deeply moving if occasionally overwrought exposé of bullying in the acutely competitive academic pressure cooker of a Chinese high school — it’s hard to imagine she can be nostalgic for her own school days. After this brief flash forward, we’re plunged back into the past with her, beginning the day a bullied classmate jumps to her death in the building’s massive courtyard, and Chen Nian’s small act of kindness in covering the body marks her out as the bullies’ next target. This was never her playground.
Chen Nian is among the top students in her year despite coming from an impoverished, debt-ridden background, as the latchkey daughter of a mother forced to sell fake goods to make ends meet. She is just a couple of months away from Gaokao, the two-day exam that will define her future prospects: “Score 600! Get into the university of your choice!” goes the chant as the kids jog around the sports field. Inside, students sit relentlessly cramming amid chin-high piles of papers and books; occasionally they assemble into neat lines and recite not a pledge of allegiance or a school motto, but a “vow” not to disappoint parents or teachers.
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The police come to the school to investigate the suicide. The more senior cop (played by Huang Jue, star of Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”) is pessimistic about their chances of proving it an actionable crime. But the younger detective Zheng (Yin Fang) takes an interest — especially in the withdrawn Chen Nian after she, troubled by her own conscience for not intervening in the dead girl’s bullying, reports the gang responsible, led by pretty, cosseted classmate Wei Lai (Zhou Ye). But Zheng’s good intentions achieve little, and when the authorities let her down one too many times, Chen Nian instead turns to petty criminal Xiao Bei (pop-star-turned-actor Jackson Yee) for protection from increasingly frequent assaults. Unexpectedly, the film starts to develop into a tender love story, punctuated with brief but viscerally upsetting scenes of psychological and physical peer-group abuse, during which those who do not actively participate simply stay silent, averting their eyes.
Appropriate to a life lived as invisibly as possible during the school day, DP Yu Jing-Pin’s daytime photography is simple and unassuming. But at night, as Chen Nian and Xiao Bei’s romance blossoms like a bruise, so too does the cinematography: Colors become punchier, lighting more stylized, casting this Chinese Romeo and Juliet in a nighttime glow of illicit glamor.
There are even times when this genre-inflected story of star-crossed love becomes so potent it threatens to undermine the film’s social realist credentials, and the very serious point it is making about the unchecked (in fact, systemically encouraged) ruthlessly Darwinian social order of Chinese schooling. But however archetypal the characters become — sometimes it feels like Xiao Bei is the bad-boy boxer and Chen Nian is the good-girl hope-for-redemption from a classic film noir — the electrifyingly real performances, especially from a riveting, guttingly empathetic Zhou, convince us of the emotional truth of even the most schematic of twists.
So, despite an underdeveloped subplot about a serial rapist, the unnecessary emphasis of Varqa Buehrer’s sentimental scoring and some slightly overworked chronology-jumbling in order to make the pacing a bit more thrillerish, the heightened dramatic register works well overall, playing merry havoc with the heartstrings and building to a truly moving scene of mutual repudiation and cross-wired self-sacrifice in adjoining police interrogation rooms.
“Better Days” weathered a rough journey to the screen. Having been pulled from competition at the Berlin Film Festival, it was then pushed back from its original Chinese release date — a move popularly believed to be related to the authorities’ increased skittishness around the 70-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. But since then, much like its resilient heroine, it has triumphed over adversity, already grossing more than $217 million in China (where it opened Oct. 25, two weeks before a modest U.S. release) . Perhaps we can hope that for similarly sensitive, stylish and affecting explorations of contemporary Chinese society, the happy end that Tsang’s highly deserving film enjoyed, does indeed signal better days to come.