There’s a strange, yet telling line in Hong Kong’s Oscar submission, Better Days, that seeps deeper than anything else in the film. “You’re either a bully, or you’re the one being bullied.” Essentially, it means that there are no innocent bystanders, but it sticks out because there’s a disturbing wisdom to it. Even if you don’t approve of the abuse and violence inherent in school bullying, there really aren’t any shades of grey, especially in schools where the problem is pervasive. If you speak out against the bullying, you become a target. If you stand up for someone else, you become a target unless you can overpower the one dishing out the beatings, in which case you become the bully. In extreme cases, a powerful tormenter will make one victim hurt another just to establish a pecking order of dominance. It’s a no-win situation. You’re either the victim or the perpetrator.
There are no easy answers in how to solve the problem, if there are any at all, but the film does go to great lengths to depict the real-life consequences of any one action. Based on a Young Adult novel (which makes it kind of weird when the film inserts a post-script slate at the end as if these were real events), the movie maintains the tone and feel of a revenge action film while keeping itself grounded in the emotional toll bullying takes without using the stylized violence of the genre.
Zhou Dongyu stars as Chen Nian, a high school student cramming for college entrance exams. Living in a flophouse with her mother (Wu Yue), who is up to her eyeballs in pyramid scheme debt, Nian’s hope is to ace the exams and get into a school in Beijing to get her out of her dead-end environment. After one of her classmates commits suicide thanks to excessive bullying, the queen bees of the school turn to Nian as their next target, threatening her in the hallways, tailing her home from school, and beating her in the streets. Led by the aristocratic Wei Lai (Zhoe Ye), the trio of girls takes an almost sociopathic approach to their abuse, looking dead-eyed at administrators and police investigators and telling them that their dead classmate was “weak” and simply “succumbed to the pressure” of the tests, and it should be no concern of theirs that she fell by the wayside. It really is disturbing how adept they are at victim shaming. It’d almost be impressive if it weren’t so depraved.
While walking home from school one night, Nian witnesses a street punk named Liu Beishan (pop singer Jackson Yee) being beaten by a gang. When she tries to intervene by calling police, she is noticed and beat up as well until she’s forced to kiss Beishan’s bloodied face. For her kindness, Beishan offers Nian protection in exchange for money, and Nian finally comes forward to police about how Wei Lai and the others have treated her, resulting in their suspension. Rather than teach them a lesson, however, this just makes their bloodlust grow ever larger, and the three attempt to kill Nian, leading her to take Beishan up on his offer, but since she can’t spare any money, she gives him friendship and tutoring. Naturally, the two become close to the point of romance, and Nian finds herself willing to sacrifice for him. It’s standard-issue YA crap.
Or at least, it would be, if not for the fact that the two get dragged into a murder investigation. Whereas Nian was once pitied as the victim of extreme bullying, suddenly she finds herself the prime suspect in a heinous crime, and now the bullying comes from the other side, from police who were supposed to protect her and are now berating and threatening her to get a confession.
That’s where the film is able to escape the trappings of ordinary YA cliché. Because yes, while Nian and Beishan’s relationship is very by-the-numbers, the surrounding circumstances aren’t. Nian isn’t some run-of-the-mill sad teenager wishing for more out of life. She’s working hard, applying herself to an almost obsessive degree to her studies in hopes of earning a better existence. And while Beishan’s backstory as a delinquent is one that’s been told before, he adds emotional depth to the character and wrings genuine pathos out of desperate situation.
But what I really liked about this movie is how it uses its platform to play with expectations while telling an important story. As I said, the presentation and production design lend themselves to some of the best of Hong Kong action films. Dreary rain, buildings and sets that would be perfect for a fight sequence, a healthy dose of rage for the main character that we in the audience can feel thanks to the frank, unflinching displays of abuse from Wei Lai and others. This has all the earmarks to set up some really ripping revenge fantasy wish fulfillment.
Instead, director Derek Tsang keeps the focus squarely on his two leads and the reality of their situation. Beishan is tough, but he’s introduced in a scene where he gets his ass kicked, and he comes out the worse in few other scuffles as well. Nian is smart and resourceful, finding ways to make money to pay off her mother’s debts, but she’s not going to suddenly figure out a martial art or get weapons to exact vengeance on those who’ve made her life Hell. She knows that she’s outnumbered, and that no one is reasonably going to help her when things come to a head. Beishan can barely fight, and she can’t fight back at all, so there’s no point in pretending that a hyper-violent spectacle would be realistic. So the story has to remain centered on them as people, not as avenging angels. This helps keep the film grounded while still maintaining a great atmosphere, and it makes the solution to the murder completely believable.
The film can be a bit disjointed at times, and while it’s right to keep the focus on the two main characters, making them anything close to a couple is just YA pandering that didn’t need to happen. I also can’t say I really enjoyed the ending, though I won’t spoil anything here. Still, as someone who was bullied for a long time myself, I felt the pain and anger that Nian experiences in real time. I know that despair, that hopelessness, and the confusion when someone who’s supposed to be on my side suddenly decides that I deserved what I got rather than dealing with the actual problem. For that honesty alone, Derek Tsang earns his kudos.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How big a problem was bullying at your school? Did you end up making a stupid music video about it? Let me know!