When it is time for the Chinese gaokao, the entire country comes to a standstill. For nearly ten million high school students, this two-day national college entrance exam will determine where and if they get to study. It is not uncommon for the fates of entire families to hinge on the results. Like so many others, Nian has been focused on preparing for the exam, at the exclusion of everything else and is all alone. A classmate has committed suicide and she has become the target of relentless bullying. Meanwhile, fate brings her together with small-time criminal Bei and the two of them seal a pact.
"If you weren't the bully, then you were being bullied."
Every June, almost 10 million Chinese students sit for the National College Entrance Examination, or the "Gaokao". For many, this nine-hour exam is considered the most important deciding factor in a student's future: Success on the Gaokao is what determines acceptance to China's universities, which in turn determines one's future career.
Although Better Days was initially censored by the Chinese government, the decision was later changed and the movie began showing in theaters. It's not hard to see why it enticed controversy in the first place as it portrays the Gaokao as a high pressure environment that fosters bullying, mental illness, and suicide. It opens a window to a world where students study endless hours in cram schools for their chance at a good future. Accountability in bullying cases is a recurring theme that underlies the movie.
But don't get this wrong, this isn't a story about the Gaokao. This is a story about heartbreak. Heartbreak for students who are bullied by their peers. Heartbreak for single parents who put their hopes and dreams on their children. Heartbreak for those who love unconditionally and are willing to sacrifice everything. Dongyu Zhou (Soul Mate, Under the Hawthorn Tree) and Jackson Yee (TFboys) are deft as two halves of a love story while Director Derek Tsang masterfully captures the sheer range of both leads. The cinematography doesn't go unnoticed either as every shot has tremendous depth for those paying close attention.
Of the many lines that stand out in this movie, one that resonates particularly is "If you weren't the bully, then you were being bullied." To me, this is what makes the film so powerful: its ability to pull at your heart over and over again. Go out and see this film. When you leave the theater, reflect on what you saw. Wonder how despite how far we have come, we still have so much left to go.
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