Better Days deals with a very generic yet important issue, School Bullying. Focusing on a teenage girl’s story, the narrative tries to capture various related problems, teenagers face each day but are too afraid to discuss them. It piles up in the form of anger, angst, and sorrow.
The film is based on the Chinese coming-of-age novel, In His Youth, In Her Beauty, by Jiu Yuexi. Directed by Derek Tsang, the film Better Days (Shaonian de ni in Chinese) incorporates an amazingly gripping storyline and a bouquet of beautiful shots that bring out the beauty, innocence, and horror of a teenager. It is not only a well-written film but a well-shot film as well. Let’s dig deep.
‘Better Days’ Summary
Better Days begins with a teacher, Chen Nian (adult), teaching her class. In a Murakami style of dialogue, she asks her students the difference between”was” and “used to be.“
“Was means it has passed. In fact, both of them mean that it has passed. But the difference is that used to be carries a sense of loss.”
The sense of loss remains on Chen’s face as she remembers a guy in her memories. The story falls back to Anqiao City, 2011, where students are preparing for their board exams. This test will decide the fate of their future.
The film was just settling in when a tragedy hits. A girl named Hu Xiaodie jumps from the school premises and kills herself. No one comes for her rescue, and it is only Chen Nian (young) puts a sweater on Xiaodie’s face. Hence, people stop clicking picturing of her dead body.
In a world of pranksters and bullies, only Chen was left with feelings of empathy and vulnerability. The actions create an instant connection with Xiaodie. Through a flashback sequence, it is told that there were some underlying worries that pained Xiaodie.
A police investigation begins, and an inspector, Zheng Ye, investigates the case. He interrogates Chen because she was the only one who came forward for Xiaodie. However, Chen keeps the secret to herself and walks off from the investigation.
Meanwhile, Chen Nian meets a street thug, Liu Beishan (aka “Xiao Bei”). A relationship that started off with banter quickly transforms into two people trying to fill each other’s void. Chen lives alone in an apartment as her mother is mostly out for work. Chen really wishes to clear the exam and get admission to a university to quickly pay off her mother’s huge debt.
However, there are many hurdles to Chen’s pursuit, and the most malignant one is school bullying. Her friend, Hu Xiaodie, who committed suicide, was constantly bullied by three girls in school. When Chen was called for interrogation, one of the bullies, Wei Lai, picks up on Chen and mocks her too, so she doesn’t rat on her. Devastated by bullying, Chen seeks help from Xiao Bei, who threatens Wei Lai. Wei Lai and her mother, who belong to a very respectable and rich family, file a complaint against a hooded thug, and the police start investigating the scene again.
The film further explores Chen and Xiao’s struggle to protect Chen from bullying. Xiao helps her find mental peace to prepare for the exam, which is the only resort to her bright future, but will Wei Lai let her be in harmony?
‘Better Days’ Ending Explained
Better Days holds some really intriguing conversations about teenagers and adults and how their mechanisms work differently. Chen, who is on the verge of becoming an adult, is stuck in between both worlds. She stays alone without her mother’s guidance but is treated as a teenager. She is suffering from bullying but doesn’t have anyone to hold on to or speak to. She keeps telling herself that all this bullying will end once she leaves school. She is trying to run away from it.
“My mom said that the advantage of getting older is that you begin to forget things. Don’t let anything affect you. You forget it all in the end. However, what they don’t teach you is how to be an adult.”
The character arc of Chen Nian is in a constant struggle to forget the bullying, move on with it. Still, Wei Lai keeps pondering in, making Chen’s life a living hell. Wei Lai cuts off Chen’s hair, records her striping video, and humiliates her. When Xiao finds it out, his eyes burn with anger and revenge.
On the day of the examination, Wei Lai is found dead, her body lying in a landslide. Chen becomes the main suspect, and she is called in by the detectives. However, Xiao plots a plan a takes the blame himself. It is at this point where Better Days play with your mind. It makes you believe that Xiao killed Wei Lai, but through a meltdown flashback, it is revealed that Chen accidentally kills her.
Wei Lai seeks forgiveness from Chen, and Chen tries to forget the past events and move on. She tries to become an adult, but a character on the verge of being transformed can’t hold for long. Wei Lai keeps digging out topics that pained Chen. Wei talks about her Chen mother’s debt, her ugliness, the stripping, the suicide. The thoughts cloud Chen’s sensibility, and Chen pushes Wei Lai. She rolls down the stairs and strikes a stone. Wei Lai dies on the spot.
Xiao takes the blame and requests Chen to hide their secret forever.
“I’m a man with nothing. No brains, no money, and no future. But I love someone. I want her to have a happy ending.”
Zheng Ye isn’t happy with the story Chen and Xiao had weaved, and he keeps digging the truth. Xiao takes the blame, and Zheng feels helpless. He wants to help these two teenagers, but they are too adamant about helping each other. They won’t give in.
The results come out, and Chen scores brilliantly. Zheng Ye visits Chen before she leaves for Beijing. He tells her that Xiao has been given the death penalty. Zheng knows that a vulnerable person like Chen won’t live with the guilt of creating hell for another person. Zheng hits a weak spot, and Chen, unable to control herself, starts beating Zheng. Chen gives in, and Zheng tells her that he lied to her, Xiao hasn’t been given any judgment yet, but only Chen can help him prevent the fatal penalty.
In a very beautiful final montage, we see Xiao and Chen in different police vans, being transferred to a separate juvenile home. Chen accepts the mistake she had made, but it wasn’t a murder, but an accident. She hopes for a better future for both of them and even submitted a passage, “A letter to 20 years in the future,” for the same. Though the film doesn’t follow the passage’s content, the suggestion feels like Chen always wanted her life with Xiao to have a happy ending.
The film rolls back to the point where it started, an adult Chen teaching to her class. We now understand her “sense of loss” more deeply.
Chen tries to become the person that she wanted in her childhood. She escorts a nervous child to her home, and Xiao follows her like a shadow. The way he promised, to walk behind her, always.
Better Days is a beautifully shot film that holds the essence of a novel. It keeps the innocence intact while delivering a realistic performance from all the actors. It covers the topic of harassment, bullying, and pain. But on top of that, the film is a wonderful piece of love and sacrifice that will touch your heart. It is a recommendation, don’t miss this one.
The film is in the Chinese language, so please help yourself with subtitles, but do watch it. Cultural diversity in Cinema is a cause worth supporting.
Better Days (Shaonian de ni) is available for Video-on-Demand.
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