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‘Better Days’ review: Oscar nominee takes on bullying & the Chinese school system

Based on a YA novel.

Better Days is more than a nominee for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Academy Awards. It was a pop cultural phenomenon in China due to the popularity of its stars. The movie had a long road to its eventual release. It was initially pulled from its premiere at from the Berlin Film Festival. Beyond all of that, it is also a call to recognize the culture of bullying.

The Hong Kong film is about a high school girl who is being bullied by a group of mean girls. As Chen Nian tries to deal with the harassment, she also is studying for the Gaokao exams that will help determine her future. Along the way, she meets a small time criminal named Xiao Bei, both of their lives after affected. It has all the trappings of a feel good coming of age story. While there is some element of that, Better Days has a deeper message it wants to convey.

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The story operates on two fronts. One of the themes is the pressure of the Chinese high school system. Nian lives alone with her mother who is being hounded by creditors. Her performance on the upcoming tests not only determines her future, but her small family’s. There is the constant specter of the upcoming test hanging above her and the other students.

This is accurately depicted throughout the film. Even when removing the incidents of bullying, Nian is obviously stressed out. Her mother inadvertently adds to the pressure. There is also a callous moment linking the test to a suicide. It is the attacks against Nian that are the most powerful moments of Better Days. As is par for the course in today’s world, the bullying comes in person and on social media. The other students just watch as Nian is assaulted in public. Others anonymously attack her on social media. It is a dark look at society.

Better Days is also a tender love story. As Nian and Bei spend more time together, their relationship deepens. This is usually woven well into the rest of the story. That being said, there are times when their dynamic falls into the stereotypical “good girl meets bad boy” category. These moments are melodramatic and hamper the realism of the rest of the movie.

'Better Days' review: Oscar nominee takes on bullying & the Chinese school system

Once things turn into a thriller, the plot becomes a little shaky. Better Days does a great job of building the relationship between its two main characters. And the acts perpetrated against Nian get across the gravity of the situation. The final act falters next to the rest of the movie. The same emotion seen earlier in the film is lacking.

Better Days is a film that will touch anyone who sees it. The topic has unfortunately become prevalent and is one that everyone can understand. The script also adds a love story and mystery element. Its characters will leave an impression on audiences while its story is equal parts harrowing and heartwarming. 

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