IT SAYS PG ON HULU! It straight up says "PG". IMdB doesn't have an MPAA rating, so I don't know if this is at all official. Um, this isn't a PG movie. At all. It should be considered Hard R. It's about insanely violent bullying, suicide, rape, crime, and torture. It honestly is a lot. It's a bleak romance. So I don't know what o color the font. I suppose "green" because...um...it's the only data I have and I can't just break my own rules. PG...by sheerest technicality.
DIRECTOR: Derek Tsang
I'm going to put a pot of tea on. I honestly took a nap in my car before work because I'm so tired. I have time to write this today. But I know that, because I have time, I'm going to dilly-dally and then fill my time with this blog. I do have other things that I would like to do or should do today, so maybe writing this intro will shame into getting my rear end into gear about writing. Wish me luck, reader. Wish me luck.
My wife has watched her fair share of Chinese romance films. She's also watched her fair share of Japanese and Korean romance movies. For as many movies as I watch, I don't tend to watch newer Chinese romances unless they draw attention from the snob community. I kind of wish my wife was sitting next to me, telling me what to think about the other movies she's seen. But the biggest takeaway she gave me was that a lot of Asian films love the dynamic presented in the film. The studious and shy girl coupled with the bad boy male protagonist goes a long way in this subgenre of film. I kind of get that vibe. I mean, even though I don't necessarily binge these kinds of movies, I get from what films I have seen that this seems pretty on point. What is it about this dynamic that forces filmmakers to have this formula in every film? It's not like Americans necessarily shy away from this coupling. But I don't think we go into it so hard. It's not like these films get aggressively sexual. As much as Better Days has quite a bit of graphic and uncomfortable content, I don't ever see a moment when it glorifies that kind of content.
I think a lot of it comes from a similar notion seen in Western cinema: dynamic characters need to grow up and get out of their comfort zones. For Western teenagers, the concept of high school is considered one's glory days. These are the stories that are told over and over. In popular culture, Americans imbue high school with rebellion and popularity. It's why we have so many high school football games at the center of storylines. Yeah, we deal with bullying narratives as well, but there's a real jump between stuff that we see in American dramas when it comes to bullying and things that you would see in international cinema. The reason for the character dynamics comes from the philosophical shift of what high school is meant to represent in other countries, especially with China and Hong Kong. High school is a time to buckle down. The academically successful are the powerful in school. While in America, we have elements of backbiting and competition in academics, I don't think it is as open as it is in Hong Kong. Bullying stems out of the academically powerful worrying about losing that power.
Chen Nian's primary antagonist is Wei Lai, a popular girl who finds it necessary to torture Chen Nian once the social pariah kills herself. That's a pretty dark beginning to the story to begin with. But as much as Wei Lai makes an excellent villain, Derek Tsang doesn't exactly hide the fact that he knows where people like Wei Lai come from. Wei Lai is the product of an institution that thrives on spitefulness. The teachers throughout the film comment on the problems of bullying and suicide, but seem to understand that those things are just part of the process. Instead, they are the ones driving home the need for success and domination. For the next two weeks, my students are taking AP tests. While I want and need them to do well, my number one thing is their mental well-being. I've taught them the content and I've told them how to study for it. But I can't imagine only compounding their stress by reminding them constantly of the alternatives to failure. Tsang regularly will stress the insane environment that encourages students to end it all if they can't succeed.
I've questioned this before, I think, in my blog about The 400 Blows. What is it about international kids that decide to ramp up the bullying to supervillain levels? Seriously, these kids in these movies do things that would get them life in prison levels of evil. I'm not saying that these things don't happen. I taught in a very scary school and I saw the awful things that kids would do to each other. But these moments of torture, coupled with mind games, seem so excessive. At one point, Wei Lai has one of her girls approach Chen Nian with a boxcutter as she holds a cage of rats. That took some prep work. Then there is the straight up sexual assault that happens with a head shave that seems so over-the-top excessive. Derek Tsang grounds his movie with the message of bullying in his opening and closing. But do almost hilariously villainous attacks on the protagonist really sell the notion that bullying should be curbed. It's kind of the same thing that we see in White Knighting movies about race. As important as it is that we know that there are insane examples of racism in our history, showing an over-the-top racist only really does one thing to change society: it lets low-key racists think "At least I'm not that guy."
When we see that savage attack on Chen Nian, the people who don't bully are horrified. Lord knows, I was aghast at what I was watching. But isn't the message for the people that need to change, "Well, at least you aren't as bad as Wei Lai." A girl could have committed suicide because of microaggressions. Heck, Chen Nian probably would have broken down a long time ago from small things like being excluded or getting beat up once in a while. But I will say, because Wei Lai is so insanely evil in this movie, Xiao Bei's intervention seems all that much more cathartic.
And this ties into the dynamic of the protagonists (I had my first sip of tea and found my way back). As virginal as Chen Nian is, it takes someone like Xiao Bei to offer perspective on the fact that life isn't all about a stupid test. Xiao Bei brings clarity to how stupid this all is. Wei Lai, for all of the power that she throws around in the movie, isn't remotely prepared for the real world. She's able to be as cruel as she is because the high school system allows for girls to be that insanely mean as long as they are academically successful. But it's over so quickly when Xiao Bei shows up. All that complexity falls apart when they are met with brute force. I should be grossed out by this, by the way, but it is hella cathartic to see Wai Lai taken down a peg very quickly by something that seems so simple. Also, Chen Nian is a very sympathetic protagonist, so there is that.
The movie is straightforward to a fault. It's kind of a long movie and it really doesn't need to be. The movie really goes out of its way to stress that Chen Nian is bullied. That can be cut by an hour, safely, because there isn't a lot of story. But the story decides to throw in this complicated plot at the end that almost doesn't make sense. The movie really wants to have a tragic ending for Chen Nian and Xiao Bei as their relationship starts looking healthy. When Chen Nian accidentally kills Wei Lai, the movie takes a really hard left and kind of drops the ball. Considering that movie is also comprised of a lot of wanting stares, Derek Tsang tries to force this tragic ending that doesn't make Chen Nian as sympathetic as it wants her to be. Up to this point, she's earned a lot of good will. But she kind of cashes in all of those chips to let Xiao Bei go to prison for her. At first, I totally get it. The idea that Xiao Bei's life is already kind of ruined makes sense that he would take the hit, especially with the lie that he would only serve two years as a minor in prison. But when Chen Nian discovers that he would get life in prison and still allows for him to be incarcerated...that doesn't make her a good guy.
And yet, the movie really wants us to like that scenario. When the police officer (who oddly has a whole B-plot in this story that seems like it is meant to set up a gross love triangle) holds her as she weeps, begging for one of them to be free, it doesn't really hold water. It seems like she's just being selfish, knowing that she can greatly diminish his involvement in the crime. I mean, they both have a shot at happiness if she just abandons the structure that has taught her that academic excellence is everything. I'm pro-academic excellence by the way, but not at the expense of the self. So the end doesn't really make sense.
All of this leaves me in a place that has to simply absorb the movie from an emotional, if not logical perspective. I mean, Better Days is a gut punch. It is visceral and I really like the relationship that it builds. But if you think about the movie too hard, it kind of falls apart simply on third act problems. Regardless, I kind of dug it.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.