Derek Tsang's Better Days: A Bleak Portrait of School Bullying, Test Anxiety, and Selfless Love

Image by ken19991210 from Pixabay

Stories with bullied characters at the center have always resonated with me. When I was young, I read Judy Blume's Blubber. Portraits of weak, vulnerable characters being tortured relentlessly are the stuff of my nightmares. Although I was never bullied as Chen Nian is, I had some close calls, and I can only imagine the helplessness felt by those who are bullied. There is always a temptation to think, "Oh that can't be real. Real kids wouldn't do that." Well, yes, they do. If bullies existed in my day, I can only imagine it's even worse, now that cellphones provide the ability to embarrass people in new ways.

In Better Days, Chen Nian goes to a prestigious school where all of the students are counting down the days until "gaokao," a well-publicized exam that happens each year in China. It's the only measure that decides where you go to college, with the highest scorers getting first choice. There's a tremendous pressure to do well on this test, with the teachers only contributing to the festering fears of the students. With pressure also comes the need to relieve the tensions building up, and the kids relentless bully female student Hu. Hu's suicide comes early in the film, and is shown almost fully in images of students gathered around like crows, looking to take the best photo of the carnage. In a moment of weakness, Chen Nian does her sort-of friend a kindness and covers up the body.

Gaining the attention of the bullies for her act of kindness, Chen Nian is now the new target of the "mean girls" at her school. The bullying only grows worse, and Chen alternates between solutions, from trying to ignore the taunts, to standing up for herself, and even sometimes trying to reach out to adults for help. Nothing works.

Enter Xiao Bei. He's a street rat, living by his wits and the scraps he can steal from others. On the street, for him, it's beat or be beaten. He cares nothing for his own safety. He shares a story of how he came to not mind being hit by the time he was 13. Nian asks Bei to protect her on her walks to school each day. He agrees for an IOU she writes in her journal. As the two spend time together, their care for each other deepens into a true soul connection. But their relationship will be tested by events that spiral out of control and threaten to drive them apart.

Although there is a lot to the plot, it's all done in a spare, visually-driven way. Our young characters don't feel a need to say much. Instead, it's all colors, and facial expressions, and body language. The coldness of the school that seems unconcerned with its students' well-being is drawn in ominous tones, where students walk like cattle from place to place. There is a little humor, but mainly the story remains serious, sad, and bittersweet.

I hope as this movie circulates, adults and teens alike will increase in awareness of bullying and make sure it becomes intolerable. The movie ends with a public service announcement and honestly made it sound like it was based on a true story. But I think that's not the case. Instead, it's based on a novel called Young and Beautiful by Jiu Yuexi. This is definitely a movie worth checking out.