From “All the President’s Men” to “Spotlight,” American films that valorize those ethically uncompromising reporters who have gone above and beyond, often at significant personal cost, in pursuit of stories of intense public interest, are not uncommon. So it’s more than a little ironic that in 2020, when the fourth estate’s influence is under greater attack, and its trustworthiness under greater suspicion, than ever in the U.S., the most impassioned and urgent drama in its defense should come from China, not a country traditionally known for its press freedoms.
But while it may feel dubious to be celebrating even a historical achievement in Beijing journalism in an era when so many journalists languish in the nation’s prisons, the message of admiration for professional perseverance and integrity delivered by director Wang Jing’s debut is acutely valuable at this moment, wherever in the world you are. Beggars for stories that restore a measure of faith in individual journalists — if not in journalism in general — cannot be choosers right now.
In purely filmmaking terms, the decision whether to engage or not is largely taken out of your hands anyway: “The Best Is Yet to Come” is as rousing and absorbing as any Hollywood triumph-over-adversity narrative, borrowing a great deal more, it seems, from U.S. touchstones in the genre than from the more trenchant and complex social commentary of producer Jia Zhangke. A fictionalized retelling of a 2003/’04 public health scandal that led one pioneering reporter to expose the underlying social and legal prejudices that fostered it, the film even gains topicality by being about a viral infection — Hepatitis B — that was further demonized in the wake of the 2002 SARS outbreak. SARS (also a coronavirus) is only mentioned by name a couple of times, but in Beijing in 2003, the insecurity and fear that the outbreak initially bred still looms large in the public imagination.
It was around the time of the SARS panic that Han Dong (a sympathetic White K) and Xiao Zhu (Miao Miao, making something of a her saintly-supportive-girlfriend role) moved to Beijing from their dead-end provincial factory jobs. Han Dong, an instantly appealing underdog, is first glimpsed amid the heaving bustle of a Beijing job fair, being smirkingly rebuffed by prospective employers when he confesses to never having finished high school. Amid all its more pointed messages, “The Best Is Yet to Come” also encompasses a wider critique of a Chinese system purportedly designed to help the best and brightest to rise to the top, but that has calcified into a hierarchical regimen brutally unforgiving of anyone without institutional qualifications.
Han Dong is a passionate blogger-journalist who wants to work for a traditional newspaper. By a lucky break, he encounters Huang (Zhang Songwen, doing a nice line in rumpled veteran to Han Dong’s idealistic newbie), the dedicated head journo at a local paper, and scores a much-coveted internship. After impressing Huang on a piece about a mine shaft collapse, Han Dong is handed a seeming nothing-story: a flier announcing “We Buy Blood!” It leads him to a shady underground network dedicated to circumventing the draconian, outdated laws that stigmatize those with Hepatitis B, making it impossible for them to get a job or a place at grad school or even a spot in a kindergarten. Han Dong files an explosive story which will be his ticket to the front page, a permanent job and a new apartment (he has been dossing in a fire-damaged kitchen). But then he realizes his story will out his best friend Zhang Bo (Song Yang), one of China’s 100 million Hep B carriers and he faces a high-stakes ethical dilemma.
The screenplay is intelligent, if straightforward to the point of schematic in the classic beats of rise, fall and rise again that it hits. But the production is elevated by Jia Zhangke’s regular DP Yu Lik-Wai, who beds us into teeming street-level early-2000s Beijing. His artful images, keyed to a low-lit interior register of dingy neons and dark greens, are permeated by the presence of many struggling, barely solvent lives in the unforgiving Chinese capital. He finds hidden vantage points — shabby doorways, grimy windows, tawdry wire-strewn corners — from which to shoot, giving every frame a depth of composition that, along with Matthieu Laclau’s pacy editing, lends this true-life drama the kick and punch of a thriller.
Fast-moving though his film is, Wang Jing never neglects the lived-in detail. In the storeroom where Xiao Zhu lives, Han Dong casually uses two discarded mannequin arms to carefully drain the rainwater from a suspended plastic sheet, in a routine so specific it can only have come from real experience. And often Wang lingers on the characters’ careworn faces: When Biao (Wang Yichuan) the ringleader of the fake-blood-test scam, is shown, like every ostensible villain here, to have his own deeply righteous reasons, the change in his expression as he turns on Han Dong, from fury to a desperate wrung-out sarcasm to utter defeat, is very moving. So aside from a couple of weakly rendered special effects scenes — a floating pen, a flying newspaper — and a jarringly basic montage of “how a newspaper gets made,” “The Best Is Yet to Come” is superbly well-made, making a compelling case for recognizing the humanity of others even in the midst of illness, even when ignorance and politicized paranoia threaten your compassion. It’s not hard to discern the relevance.