Review: Better Days
Derek Tsang’s Better Days—an Oscar nominee for International Feature Film—is a frustrating movie that’s worth the frustration. Its imperfections don’t keep it from being a powerful and moving story and its convolutions aren’t wholly justified, but if tasked with trimming it down a bit, I’m not sure what I would cut. It’s also plagued by issues forced upon the filmmaker by the Chinese government. But before we dig into all of that, let’s talk about what makes it unique and beautiful nonetheless.
Adapted from the novel In His Youth, In Her Beauty by Jiu Yuexi, Better Days is the story of Chen Nian, a gifted young woman preparing for her college entrance exams while also suffering horrific treatment at the hands of bullies. That makes it all
sound a bit trite, but there’s no way to convey in a few sentences how horrible the bullying on display here truly is. Think Lord of the Flies on steroids, just in an urban environment.
Shortly thereafter, Nian attempts to report the beating of a street thug and gets drawn into his life after nearly being killed by the gang attacking him. And again, Tsang shows a level of restraint here most directors wouldn’t. We don’t see Xiao Bei being beaten because we don’t need to. The look on her face tells us everything we need to know about the violence she’s witnessing.
The story that follows is equal parts Romeo and Juliet (sans the family feuds), Lord of the Flies (but with societal pressures standing in for the lack thereof), and a touch of Mean Girls (without the humor), but it combines its influences into something unique. The plot does get a bit messy at times but it holds together thanks to the
BETTER DAYS AT A GLANCE
Nominated for the International Feature Film Oscar, this brutal tale of bullying and societal strife is compelling and satisfying despite some meddling by the Chinese censors.
Even at 1080p on Vudu, the image is wonderfully detailed, especially in closeups, without any significant artifacts.
The 5.1-channel soundtrack manages to be creative without being gimmicky, with the ambient sound effects beautifully mixed.
performances of Dongyu Zhou as Chen Nian and Jackson Yee as Xiao Bei, as well as Tsang’s gifts for visual storytelling.
For all its ugliness, Better Days is a beautifully shot film, with some of the best application of color theory I’ve seen on any screen in some time. The portions that take place in Nian’s school are awash in secondary hues and pastels that starkly contrast with the browns and grays of Xiao Bei’s underworld. It’s a shame the film wasn’t released in 4K HDR because the color palette really deserves the expanded gamut 10-bit video would bring. So, too, do the darker scenes, where the dynamic range feels constrained. Shadows simply don’t reach as deep as they should, and the image lacks of a bit of dimension as a result.
Otherwise, Vudu’s HDX presentation is admirable. The film was shot in 3.2K resolution and finished in a 2K digital intermedia, so it’s not as if we’re losing out on a lot of resolution in the 1080p presentation. Indeed, the image is wonderfully detailed, especially in closeups. And I didn’t see any significant artifacts in Vudu’s stream. If you’re going to rent this in the digital domain, though, pick your provider carefully. I can’t imagine Amazon Prime would do justice to the cinematography, given how drab and fuzzy most of that service’s HD streams look. My advice would be to stick with Vudu or iTunes.
Either way you go, though, the 5.1 soundtrack (delivered on Vudu in Dolby Digital+) is a lot better than you’d probably expect. The mix manages to be creative without being gimmicky. There’s a scene early on where a character is listening to headphones and pulls them out of her ears one at a time. The sound mix follows her lead, planting the audio she hears dead center at first, then leaning to the left before fading away completely. Ambient sound effects are also beautifully mixed, be it the sounds of rain, traffic, or simply the background din of an overpopulated cityscape.
Vudu also presents the film with baked-in subtitles, and the only soundtrack option is the original Mandarin. This, of course, shouldn’t be a problem in and of itself, but it sort of is. I know next to no Mandarin, and what little I do know comes from wuxia films and kung-fu flicks. But even I picked up on the fact that the subtitles are occasionally lacking. Regional idioms in particular are stripped of all their flavor in favor of more generic translations.
That does little to rob the film of its impact. What does suck a bit of soul out of it is the blatantly tacked-on coda that reads more like hostage video than a legitimate expression of the filmmaker. After the story has wrapped back on itself beautifully, like a narrative ouroboros that manages to let go of its own tail, we’re subjected to some tacked-on text—accompanied by cheery music—that would have us believe the Chinese government has stamped out all the bullying and all the societal ills represented in the film have been rectified.
That left me stunned. It was so incongruous with everything else about the film that I went digging. And I found that this was far from the only meddling the Chinese government did. And with that, it all makes sense—the little plot threads that don’t feel properly resolved, the heavy-handed exposition at the hands of the film’s police characters . . . all the little nagging problems I had with the film can seemingly be blamed on the interference of the CCP.
But Better Days rises above those flaws to be a compelling movie with universal applicability. It’s a heart-wrenching story about the weight of societal and familial expectations and the tolls of living in a society where the choices made in one’s youth represent a fork in the road, with one path leading to a comfortable but oppressive life and the other toward the freedom of squalor and destitution. I wish we could see the film Derek Tsang wanted us to see, because I can only imagine how much more impact it had before all the government censorship. But none of that is to say that I’m dissatisfied with the movie we got instead.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.