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少年的你 (Shaonian de Ni)
China, 2019, 136’, Putonghua
Directed by: Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang
Script: Lam Wing-sum, Li Yuan, Xu Yimeng (adapted from the novel Young and Beautiful by Jiu Yuexi)
Photography (color): Yu Jing-pin
Editing: Zhang Yibo
Art Direction: Liang Honghu
Music: Varqa Buehrer
Producer: Jojo Hui
Cast: Zhou Dongyu (Chen Nian), Jackson Yee (Liu Beishan), Yin Fang (Zheng Yi), Huang Jue (Lao Yang), Wu Yue (Chen Nian’s mother), Zhou Ye (Wei Lai), Zhang Yifan (Hu Xiaode)
Date of First Release in Territory: October 25th, 2019
Premiere status: European Festival Premiere
A harrowing picture of school bullying is in store for viewers of Better Days, the second mainland Chinese youth drama from Hong Kong director Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang. Set in the fictitious city of Anqiao, the film follows the 2011 travails of a student subjected to intense torment at the tail end of high school – a ghastly ordeal on top of regular academic stress.
With weeks to go before she has to sit the tough “Gaokao” university entrance exams, the ambitious Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) first sees a bullied schoolmate leap to her death, then gets targeted herself by a trio of nasties in her class. Chen’s mother isn’t in a position to help and neither the school nor the police can tackle the situation effectively (bullying cases are “tricky,” says a cop). But Chen stumbles across help when she meets young hoodlum Liu Beishan (Jackson Yee). Not only does he give her shelter in his home, but also he becomes an escort to help her get to and from school safely. Alas, Liu can’t watch over Chen all the time, and her persecutors, led by rich girl Wei Lai (Zhou Ye), won’t drop their cruel campaign.
Based on a novel by Jiu Yuexi, Better Days delivers a powerful and accomplished youth drama and represents a laudable effort by Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang to portray major social ills onscreen. The story depicts a desperately poor system unable to adequately support those subjected to bullying, with institutional help sorely lacking. The central idea of a schoolgirl finding help from an honourable ruffian is a difficult one for a filmmaker to tackle in the highly regulated mainland film scene, where crime and moral grey areas attract official scrutiny, but Tsang dives deep into the material. The bond between Chen and Liu meanwhile becomes intense as the drama plays out, with Tsang once more showing his strengths in handling youth friendship onscreen after his 2016 drama Soul Mate.
To be sure, Better Days includes brief passages that feel shoehorned in to ease the film’s way into mainland cinemas, including end-credits announcements on the work of China’s current administration in tackling bullying. The overall impression on that topic, however, remains bitter and distressing all the same. And, going beyond the bullying angle, Better Days also looks to a gruelling final-exam system that students must endure in the hope of moving up in life.
Zhou Dongyu is especially strong in the central role, her character transforming rapidly as she’s subjected to fierce attack and struggling to achieve not just an academic goal but the escape it may bring her. Pop idol Jackson Yee likewise puts in an impressive turn, displaying a scruffy chivalry alongside Zhou, and together the pair carry a tight chemistry.
Better Days caught international film buffs’ attention early in 2019 when it was pulled from the Berlin Film Festival line-up, and a planned summer release was delayed. But when it hit mainland cinemas in October, Tsang’s feature scored the recognition it deserved and topped the box office for weeks running. Come early 2020, Better Days nabbed an impressive 12 nominations for the Hong Kong Film Awards, and ultimately it won eight trophies including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress when the prizes were announced in May. Tsang had gone out on a limb to do justice to Better Days’ weighty and sensitive material, and in doing so clearly struck a chord with regular moviegoers and industry peers alike.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto, Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang – the son of Hong Kong entertainment legend Eric Tsang – returned to Hong Kong and entered the film industry as an assistant at Peter Chan’s Applause Pictures. He also began taking supporting roles in front of the camera in films like AV, Isabella (which he also co-wrote), My Name Is Fame, Run Papa Run and Dream Home. In 2010, Tsang got behind the camera for the first time as the co-director of Lover’s Discourse with Jimmy Wan. Soul Mate (2016) was his first feature as solo director.
FILMOGRAFIA / FILMOGRAPHY
2010 – Lover’s Discourse (co-director)
2012 – Lacuna (co-director)
2016 – Soul Mate
2019 – Better Days