May 6, 2020

BETTER DAYS: A Plea for Empathy
Starring Zhou Dongyu, Jackson Yee, Yin Fang, Huang Jue, Wu Yue, Zhou Ye. Directed by Derek Tsang. (135 min)

Review by Stinky the Destroyer😸

I remember being picked on by a guy named Bob, a mammoth douchebag from the high school football team. I never did anything to incur his wrath...I was simply smaller and weaker. One time, he even rammed my chest with the bottom end of a crutch, cracking one of my ribs. I wanted to kill the guy, but felt helpless to do anything about it. At the same time, shit rolls downhill in school - like it does in the real world - and I did my share of pushing-around weaker kids as well.

Watching Better Days, I found myself thinking about one of those guys, named Dan. I'd call him names, occasionally throw things at him or hide his lunch. So did a lot of other kids. Me and a few friends even egged his house for no reason other than good sport. If shit does indeed roll downhill, Dan dwelled at the bottom. Today, it makes me sick to know I did that, because even though I knew how I felt when bullied by Bob, not once did I consider how I made Dan feel. I simply had no empathy. Hell, I probably couldn’t even define it back then.

In my 20+ years as a professional educator, I can attest that not only does bullying continue to be the biggest problem in schools, social media has made it worse. And if there’s a message to be found in Better Days, it’s that people’s lack of empathy is only exacerbated by technology. Just check out the very first scene, in which a young girl commits suicide at school. A large crowd of her peers gather, a majority of them whipping out their phones to get pictures. Only one, Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) looks visibly upset, taking off her jacket to cover the body.

The meds are kickin' in.
Soon after, she becomes a target, subjected to vicious physical and verbal abuse, mostly at the hands of cruel classmate Wei Lai (Zhou Ye). All this happens during China’s national college placement exams, which has a huge impact in determining student futures. With police and the school more-or-less unable – or unwilling – to intervene, Chen Nian propositions teen street thug Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee) to provide protection while she focuses on preparing for the exam. During this time, not only does she learn to trust him more than her own shiftless mother, they develop a loving relationship (though it remains platonic). Then, just as exams are about to begin, Wei Lai turns up dead and Chen becomes the primary suspect.

Chen’s harrowing ordeal is tempered by her friendship with Xiao, providing an interesting dichotomy in the narrative. The two leads are likable and engaging, while Wei Lai is suitably hateful. But being that the film – and the novel it’s adapted from – is aimed towards young adults, Better Days is not about revenge (though some characters certainly get what’s coming to them). Ultimately, the film is about awareness, a call for change in a dysfunctional cultural climate. In that respect, it succeeds, being an emotional rollercoaster ride that’s as compelling as it is relevant.

However, the film doesn’t know when to quit. Long-after we’ve gotten the point and the primary conflict has been resolved, it devolves into an anti-climactic and unnecessary police procedural. With seemingly more codas than Lord of the Rings, they could have trimmed at least 30 minutes from the final act without seriously affecting the story.

But until then, Better Days is timely, realistic and – considering the message - appropriately disturbing when it needs to be. Paring it up with something like The Hate U Give would make an eye-opening double feature, revealing some of the cultural conflicts our youth face in society, as well as the fortitude it takes to challenge them.


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