In most other years. Chinese drama-thriller Better Days would have taken the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
This social commentary on bullying and the pressures of exams and schooling in China is a heartbreaking triumph of an endeavour that will pull you in completely.
When teenage girl Chen Nian witnesses her classmate’s suicide, she becomes embroiled in a toxic environment that sees her bullied by other girls mercilessly. Without the aid of adults who should be responsible and with a school environment that shoves things under the rug, she tries to keep her head down and study for the entrance exams that will determine her college placement, and in effect, her future.
But as the attacks persist and become more physical, she’s forced into action. She meets a young man who she convinces to protect her from those who would wish her harm. Mysterious Xiao Bei walks her home from school, threatens her bullies and forms a bond with her that cannot be broken.
Principle actors Dongyu Zhou and Jackson Yee are perfectly matched, and their realistic, haunting portrayals allow this film to have some resonance. Even when you’re shocked and incensed by the events unfolding, their turns keep you completely entrenched in the story.
Director Derek Tsang creates a spellbinding film here with more style and grit than I’ve witnessed in a while. It’s absolutely brutal, but finds a way to be touching at the same time. Tsang’s commentary, at times, can feel heavy-handed, but his principals keep things afloat.
The screenplay is perfect, and the unfolding story was the best part of the film. It takes you places you’d never expect, and if you don’t see Better Days, you’re missing out on one of the greatest films of 2020.