Narratively speaking, there is nothing particularly original about the themes and structure of the Chinese melodrama, Better Days. In terms of being a story taking place in high school, involving bullying that leads to both suicide and a murder, which is presented as something of a mystery, Better Days often feels like a feature-film variation on the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why.” However, it is in the differences of the narratives that Better Days finds its distinct voice, and the film may have been more successful had those elements been favored more.
The most obvious difference between the two narratives is the country of origin, which in turn has an immediate impact on the unique cultural messages. While social media plays heavily into the pressures of both stories, it clearly has a more immediate concern in the American TV show, while Better Days is directing a majority of focus on the pressures of college entrance exams in China.
This is where Better Days comes off as even more impressive with the consideration of country of origin in mind. Subtle or not, any criticism of Chinese culture is rarely found in the heavily government-censored film industry, and Better Days certainly doesn’t seem to be showing the college entrance exams in the best light. Perhaps this is hidden in the shadows of the bullying, which is depicted in some of the film’s most difficult scenes. Tellingly, however, these instances of bullying don’t occur in the school, and police are empathetic and proactive in attempts to stop the harassment.
The girl being bullied is Chen Nian (Dongyu Zhou), a hard working student from an impoverished single-parent home. Among her tormenters (Ye Zhou, Ran Liu, and Xinyi Zhang), at least one is shown to be extremely well off, but this doesn’t seem to be the primary reason for the bullying. When their previous target finally killed herself, Chen Nian was the one to cover her body before the police arrived. That was enough to peg her as the next target by this sadistic trio of female bullies, who go beyond online harassment to actual physical abuse.
Perhaps because of her own experience being outnumbered, Chen Nian attempts to call the police when she sees several young men beating a street thug named Xiao Bei (pop star, Jackson Yee). When this action is discovered, Chen Nian’s phone is damaged to stop the call, and she is brought into the altercation. Feeling obligated, Xiao Bei offers to fix her phone, and eventually becomes a solution to her bullying problem. Because nearly every incident occurs on her way home from school, Xiao Bei begins to follow her to and from home for protection.
While I appreciated the way that Better Days did not always go in a completely predictable direction, there were a few moments that feel a tad bit contrived. There are also characters (particularly in authority figures), which seem pretty pointless, beyond offering a positive portrayal of government employees. With that being said, Better Days is an effective melodrama, in every sense of the genre. The acting by Dongyu Zhou in particular was extremely effective and affecting.
The Blu-ray release for Better Days comes with very few perks. There is a making of featurette in the special features. The disc also has trailers for other film titles.
Entertainment Value: 6/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 8/10
Historical Significance: 6.5/10
Special Features: 3/10