Better Days (2019; Derek Tsang)
By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing in select theaters and virtual cinemas and on Hulu and VOD services.
This Academy Award nominee received Hong Kong’s first Best International Feature Film nod in nearly three decades, which is insane. Unfortunately and all too predictably, rather than a worthy successor to snubbed masterworks by Hong Kong legends like John Woo, Johnnie To and Wong Kar-Wai, Better Days is a painfully self-serious, emo message-movie with a chaser of Chinese propaganda.
A Single Tear
At least you can’t fault the performances. Dongyu Zhou does heartbreaking work as Chen Nian, a brutally bullied schoolgirl at a high-pressure academy, while Jackson Yee plays the stray dog who becomes her protector. They have good chemistry and do their best with a wildly cluttered script.
Blame lies instead with Tsang’s callowness and a general overbearingness (not to mention the Academy’s blithering ignorance–they snubbed In the Mood for a Love in favor of a Belgian comedy called Everybody’s Famous! that everyone hates, for fuck’s sake). A huge hit in China, Better Days touches on numerous societal issues beyond bullying, including academic pressures and class divisions. However, for all the visceral violence, Tsang’s take feels simultaneously romanticized and exploitative.
More than anything, Better Days is an indulgent bummer. The film’s enduring image is a perfect tear slowly rolling down a perfectly placid face. No joke, it happens several dozen times.