This is Chen Nian and Xiao Bei in "Better Days".

Every part of this film is stunning.

When people talk about bullying, it’s usually discussed within a white-washed context as an issue that is largely apparent in western countries. Perhaps you immediately imagine a white kid being ostracized or tormented for parts of themselves that they’re unable to change. Maybe they’re bullied because they are ahead of their peers in clearly carving out an identity despite others thinking they are weird or it’s because they have large ears. Yet, too often no one seems to wonder what bullying looks like in China, India or countries in Africa. “Better Days” a devastating Chinese film directed by Derek Tsang, touches on the ignorance that enables only certain people to be entitled to their suffering and trauma from the pain caused by relentless torment.

If you were to think about bullying right now, how much would your imaginations be stunted to simply name calling, stealing, or minor assaults? What if someone told you that for some students who are bullied it means that they are attacked with violence so vile, if left unchecked, someone would die? This level of cruelty is at the heart of “Better Days”, a story about how high school student Chen Nian ( Dongyu Zhou), is so persecuted at school, that her only solace is Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee) a school drop out that is partial to gang activity. Within each other, they find peace, comfort, and the sense of belonging that was absent in their lives. Their story is incredibly sad but so moving.

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Adapted from Jiu Yuexi’s novel “In His Youth, In Her Beauty” the story first follows Chen Nian, a student in her final year of high school as she prepares for China’s Gaokao. The stakes are so high, that the nation quiets down to prepare for this annual two-day college entrance exam. These tests often determine the fate of families so, the pressure is felt by both parents and students and for the short period that the exams are held, they exceed everything. If you pass, it can mean an auspicious future wherein a student is rooted towards high-skilled professions but if a students fails, it can mean that their path and choices in their future will be directed towards vocational studies and jobs that pay little. This is why Nian studies hard for the test in spite of all the chaos and distractions in her life.

Nian narrows in on her studies even when she’s witness to her friend’s bullying at school. She studies harder when the bullying becomes so intolerable for her friend that her friend commits suicide and incites a police investigation. Nian’s efforts are more pronounced even when adults in her community try to public shame her mother for unpaid loans she borrowed for her business. Her success on her exam trumps every discomfort and trouble thrown at her because it’s her ticket to freedom and an escape from the pain of being born in an underprivileged family.

At heart, “Better Days” is sad because Nian’s bullying is one of the most egregious and harshest I’ve ever seen. Still, like all bullying her’s is nonsensical and unexpected. When she’s in a lunch line at her school’s cafeteria, a group of seemingly harmless girls pack around her as their leader innocently question her about her skills in English. As soon as Nian realizes that she’s surrounded, she dashes for an exit, leaving the girls rattled at how quickly she was able to escape them. But on her way home, she’s not so fortunate: They are able to grab at her and quickly knock her down, kick and hit her, all the while noticeably enjoying themselves as they watch her scream in distress. So, meeting Bei was decidedly the most fortunate thing that could happen to Nian to allow her the peace to focus entirely on her studies. He protects her on the way to and from school and she keeps him company.

For a while, their relationship, which started off quite restrained, harmonizes to fit both of their lives. They found a routine: He walks her to school, does questionable activities to make money, then walks her home. The simple fact that there is a presence to look over her and threaten her bullies saves her from torment for a while; enough for her to flourish and find happiness again. They begin to fall into step with each other and nurture a beautiful romance until it’s abruptly interrupted, when the worst possible thing that could happen happens.

One day, Bei was taken to a police station to be part of a round-up so that a sexual assault victim could identify her attacker but he wasn’t allowed to leave until really late. Without him by her side, Nian had to go home alone so she was caught in a trap by her bullies and horrifically beaten, stripped and filmed as she pleaded for her attackers to stop. The event was so upsetting and shocking that when Nian’s bully was found murdered and buried at a construction site, Nian and Bei were the prime suspects. Despite the severity of the crime, Bei protected Nian without hesitation based off of a promise they made to each other to always be there for one another. This promise causes them so much trouble.

“Better Days” is very layered in how bleak the narrative is. Mixed in with a story about friendship is a sobering look about how hellish and expansive poverty and it’s residual effects stains lives. Nian is tormented because she’s poor and like others like her, essentially targeted only for this misfortune. Her bullies are fairly wealthy so their parents are able to use their titles to get lenient punishments for their children even when she reports them. The effects of poverty continue to creep into every inch of the film. Even the fact that both Nian and Bei are abandoned by their families and that Bei defers to petty crime to survive, is a nod to the hugely unfair climate that allows for imbalances of the enjoyment of resources and one that encourages the gap between the rich and poor to grow so large that the poor are effectively always grabbing and pulling at any opportunity they have to reach the heights of their rich counterparts.

“Better Days” captures the severity of how the pain the poor endure is easy to feel but often ignored. It’s demonstrated in the fact that Nian and Bei are able to easily see what their lives could be like since their dream is usually near and visible through their neighbors and classmates, but the rich always keep it just out of reach. The nightmare of poverty is why students and their families rely so heavily on the Gaokao to save them and give them entry to the carefree lifestyle we all imagine. Every part of this film, including the fantastic acting of Zhou and Yee, is stunning and meaningful. Put simply, “Better Days” is a masterpiece.

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