• Film

New Asian Cinema: Better Days (Shao Nian De Ni), China

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Though it took Hong Kong director Derek Kwok Cheung Tsang and producer Peter Ho-Sun Chan almost a year to obtain a theatrical release permit from the mainland Chinese authorities, their film Better Days became an instant hit once it got released in October 2019. Its box office reached $227.3 million worldwide as it became the highest-grossing young adult drama in China

Better Days’ story happens right before the annual Gaokao, known as the notorious college entrance exam that makes approximately ten million high school students compete for a very limited number of admissions to the best colleges in China. Chen Nian, played by Chinese actress Zhou Dongyu, is one of the millions. She has been cramming restlessly to prepare for the exams. But her introvert personality and questionable family background made her an easy target of school bullying. Tormented and scared, Nian fears that she will lose focus on Gaokao. Instead of cooperating with the local police, Nian decides to seal a pact with a kind-hearted street thug Bei, played by 19-year-old Chinese actor Jackson Yee. They become a mismatched couple who later put their future on the line when they get involved in the suicide of Nian’s schoolmate.

The bullying drama is adapted from a popular Chinese youth adult novel, In His Youth, In Her Beauty by author Jiu Yuexi. It’s director Derek Kwok Cheung Tsang’s fourth feature film. The son of Hong Kong comedy star Eric Tsang, Derek started in the film business as an actor in 2003. His passion for cinema and storytelling drove him to launch his directing career when he co-directed romantic drama Lover’s Discourse in 2010. Derek’s strength is creating dimensional characters and realistic depictions of Chinese society that the young generation in China can deeply empathize with. In 2016, his feature film as a solo director Soul Mate earned him two nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards including the Best Director and the Best New Director.

Unlike other Hong Kong directors who tend to cast famous Cantonese actors, Derek likes to cast young mainland talent and Jackson Yee was his top choice to play Bei in the film.  At the age of 13, Jackson became the youngest member of the popular Chinese boy band TFBoys. Soon Jackson’s stardom took off and became the most commercially valuable singer in China. Better Days marks Jackson’s first theatrical feature film in which he expresses a range of vulnerabilities behind a veil of street roughness. His performances earned him Best Newcomer award at the 39th Hong Kong Film Awards. 

Zhou Dongyu gained her national recognition after appearing in Zhang Yimou‘s Under The Hawthorn Tree in 2010. She worked with Derek Cheung in Better Days Zhou Dongyu shaved her head and got stripped by other schoolgirls in several violent scenes.

Better Days’ theme of school bullying realistically portrays a long-standing problem in China’s school system. It had a rough journey on the global market after getting pulled from competition at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival by the Chinese government. However, because of its social influence and theatrical success, China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television has approved a television remake of the film. The two leads of the film, Zhou Dongyu and Jackson Yee, have confirmed they would not reprise their roles.