China’s ‘Better Days’ puts destructiveness of school bullying at the forefront

Jackson Yee as Xiao Bei who befriends a bullied teen in "Better Days,"
(WellGo USA)

Hong Kong filmmaker Derek Tsang had long wanted to make a film about school bullying, which he knew would be a sensitive topic to get past China’s censor board. But as he and his producing team began developing what would eventually become “Better Days,” a thriller-tinged love story between a peer-abused high school girl trying to prepare for an important exam and a rebellious street youth who becomes her protector, Tsang’s confidence in the story he wanted to tell kept growing.

“When we were planning this project, a lot of people were telling us, ‘Do you have second thoughts?’ But this was a story we really believed in,” the 41-year-old director said recently via Zoom from Hong Kong. “It felt like something we should talk about, and one of the things that we’re very fortunate about is the government really wanted to tackle this issue and passed laws to try to help curb these kinds of things.”

Tsang’s optimistic dedication in mixing social commentary with genre elements paid off. “Better Days” became one of China’s biggest and most acclaimed box office hits in 2019, and at the end of March 15, 2021, while he was resting after a long day, his phone blew up with messages that his movie was now an international feature Oscar nominee. “I was a bit tired,” he says, “but we had a celebration that night.”

Tsang continues to be touched by how well the film has traveled. “It’s an issue across cultures,” says Tsang, who has also been moved by audience testimonials on a website the production created for the film for its Chinese release. “It was an open forum essay format, so people could write their story, what they went through in high school, how they were bullied, and encouraging their future selves to stay strong. A lot of these stories brought tears to my eyes.”


Dongyu Zhou in "Better Days."
(WellGo USA)

When he was researching “Better Days,” however, shock was mostly what he experienced at the prevalence of online bullying videos, details of which made their way into the mistreatment that quiet, studious and lonely Chen Nian faces in the film — taunting that eventually turns violent and psychologically cruel.

Just as important, however, was conveying how overt harassment is never the whole story. Adds Tsang, “Something we really wanted to say in the film is that if you turn a blind eye to it, you’re also a victimizer.”

The other tangible factor in Tsang’s film is the very real pressure surrounding China’s national college entrance exams, known as Gaokao, the prepping and taking of which captures the country’s interest every June. For poorer students like the movie’s protagonist, says Tsang, the tests feel like make-or-break events that determine the path of one’s life. “We always came across kids saying online that even though there’s a lot that’s unjust in society,” says Tsang, “Gaokao is one of the few platforms where they have a fair chance [against] kids from privileged backgrounds. So we really wanted to give that background to an audience not from China.”

What Nian endures in the film as a target of classmate bullies was intense enough that Tsang’s lead, beloved Chinese actress Dongyu Zhou (who starred in his previous feature “Soulmate”), initially struggled relating to someone whose response to persecution was so different from hers. “She’d ask, ‘How can she bear all this without fighting back?’” recalls Tsang. “But because we shot the film in a linear fashion, we wanted her to experience what Chen Nian went through. So it was fascinating to watch her transformation. Once she understood Chen Nian, she really got inside the character.”

Jackson Yee and Dongyu Zhou (reflection) star in "Better Days."
(WellGo USA)

Shooting in sequence also gave an organic reality to the underdog bond Nian develops with thoughtful gang kid Xiao Bei, played by Mandopop boy band star Jackson Yee. Tsang sensed a lived-in connection the teenage Yee was using to inform his performance. “He has a lot of empathy for people, because he was picked on a lot as not fit to be in his group because he wasn’t ‘the pretty one,’” says Tsang. “He really felt what the story meant. He had that edge, but inside, you know he’s really sensitive.”

Tsang understands that there’s no cure-all for bullying and no solution any film can offer. “It’s just part of our human nature,” he says. His hope, though, is that “Better Days” shows people how important it is not to keep internalizing it. “Reach out, be it a teacher, or parents, but speak up,” he says. “Don’t just take it upon yourself and think it’s your problem.”

But he’d also like to see how other filmmakers handle this issue. And having heard that a Korean producer friend wants remake rights, that might just happen. “I would love to have different filmmakers from different cultures have their own take on it.”