Better Days (少年的你, Derek Tsang, 2019)

Better Days poster high resWith the Chinese censors board seemingly on high alert, the news that yet another highly anticipated film from an internationally acclaimed director has been pulled from its prime festival slot for “technical reasons” comes as no surprise. Derek Tsang’s Better Days (少年的你, Shàonián de Nǐ) proved an early Berlin casualty, missing out on the festival season in its entirety while gaining approval for a regular release in June only to be abruptly pulled three days before the film was set to open nationwide. Finally making its way into multiplexes all over the world (largely thanks to its boyband star), it’s clear that concessions have been made but it’s not difficult to see why the censors might have been nervous given that Tsang, while perhaps coy, is not afraid to paint his two tragic protagonists as bullied by their society, victims of a series of concentric social ills which define the modern China.

Opening with a brief, melancholy framing sequence featuring the older Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) teaching English in a small provincial classroom, Tsang flashes back to 2011 when she was a mousey student studying at a top cram school while preparing for China’s gruelling two-day Gaokao university entrance exams. Nian shuts out the rest of the world and buries herself in books, but is jolted out of her trance-like dedication when a classmate, Hu Xiaodie (Zhang Yifan), jumps from the school roof into the courtyard below. Wanting to remain distant yet somehow moved, she attracts the wrong kind of attention with a gesture of kindness, placing her school jacket over Xiaodie’s ruined face to protect her from the cruel gaze of the smartphone cameras trained on her contorted body with a strange kind of hungry triumph.

Questioned by the police, Nian denies that she and Xiaodie were friends, refusing to disclose any information which might explain what led her to take her own life. Nian, however, is perfectly aware of what made her do it, because she too is one of a small group of students terrorised by a trio of rich kids led by the sociopathic Wei Lai (Zhou Ye). Now that Xiaodie is out of the picture, Nian is first in the firing line. Along with a male student apparently also among the bullied, Nian had believed that the bullying was just something she’d have to endure until she’s done with Gaokao and graduates into adulthood, but with the violence and cruelty escalating she decides to try getting help from the authorities.

The authorities, however, are largely absent. Despite concrete evidence that Wei Lai and her friends hounded Xiaodie to her death, the girls are merely given a slap on the wrist, suspended from school still but allowed to take the Gaokao with no further action taken because, after all, they’re still young and have their whole lives ahead of them. The irony is that the tannoys at this expensive cram school blast out the message that life isn’t fair but the Gaokao is, as if it were some great leveller giving equal opportunity to all rather than advantaging those who have the most money to throw at. Wei Lai is a young woman from a wealthy family who feels herself entitled to success and resentful of those who might eclipse her through talent alone while deeply believing that her money gives her the right to do whatever she pleases. She makes Nian’s life a misery in order to assert a power she does not really have, bullied herself at home by a father apparently dissatisfied with her lack of academic results.

Parents, like teachers and policemen, are generally distant figures of authority, bullying their kids into academic success through a combination of shaming and violence. Nian is singled out for bullying partly for being from the “wrong” socioeconomic background, the child of a single mother currently on the run from debt collectors and selling potentially harmful black-market cosmetics to get by. Unlike some of the other parents, Nian’s largely absent mother encourages rather than disciplines her but is too far away to offer much in the way of support or protection and quite clearly views her daughter’s academic success as her own salvation. Nian cannot ask her mother for help, nor can she turn to the school who have already made it clear they’ll bend over backwards to back the rich kids, or to the police who profess they can’t do anything because they always end up looking for someone in loco parentis and finding no one there.

That is perhaps why Nian ends up turning to the unconventional source of protection, bad boy Bei (Jackson Yee). Himself a victim of bullying in being abused and then abandoned by his parents, Bei, a noble street punk, though rough and unpredictable swears to protect her with his fists, willing to take a beating to do it (and eventually far more) if necessary. Bonding in their shared sadness, Bei realises that Nian has one shot but she could still get out and escape the misery of poverty whereas there is no way out for him.   

Nian tells the policemen investigating Xiaodie’s death that there is no room for friendship among those single-mindedly studying for the Gaokao, but slowly opens up to Bei while beginning to address her deep seated feelings of guilt and resentment in her complicity with social oppression. Grateful that it wasn’t her, she let Xiaodie suffer. Meanwhile, another student knowing herself to be a potential victim wilfully joins in with the bullies in the hope they’ll leave her alone only to find herself next in the firing line while Nian is protected by the shadow of Bei. Awakening to her social responsibility now that she is no longer alone, Nian resolves to try and help the other girl by bringing her into her circle of protection but finds herself betrayed by the girl’s failure to overcome her fear in order to reject her complicity.

Nian is repeatedly told that Gaokao is the doorway to adulthood, that all she has to do is endure until it’s over and she’s “free”. Sympathetic police detectives lament that empathy is something you learn only when grownup while simultaneously convinced that only those as young and naive as Nian and Bei would willingly sacrifice themselves for one another. Tsang begins in the realms of moody, achingly cool nihilistic youth drama in which there can be no way out for our doomed lovers, but soon segues into something more palatable to the censors in once again victim blaming the teens, suggesting that their problems are partly of their own making in their resistance to benevolent authority, refusing to trust an earnest, emotionally astute police detective intent on saving them from themselves.

Rather than accept that the tyranny of the Gaokao, increasing social inequality, entrenched authoritarianism, a shame culture, and an epidemic of absentee parenting in the midst of China’s go for broke economic development, are creating a pressure cooker society in which cruelty and violence are the only inevitability, the film ends on an incongruously rosy note which emphasises our collective responsibility to combat bullying (aided by the state whose efforts to tackle it are detailed in an awkward propagandist coda) while uncomfortably implying that it too is something that ends in childhood. Nian resolves to protect the world, as if she could solve all of society’s ills through solidarity alone, but emerges with little more than world weary resignation to its refusal to protect her. Still, in a world of unreliable authority figures and hopeless futures, solidarity’s better than nothing and as likely as anything else to lead to Better Days ahead.


Currently on limited release in UK, Australian, and New Zealand cinemas courtesy of Magnum Films, and in the US from Well Go.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会, Diao Yinan, 2019)

wild goose lake poster 1Chaos and desperation are about as far as it’s possible to get from the image of the modern China the nation’s cinema has been keen to project, but that’s exactly where we find ourselves in the murky world of The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会, Nánfāng Czhàn de Jùhuì). Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice followup finds the director in much the same territory only this time embracing the absurdity of existential flight as his twin heroes seek impossible escape in the garish neon of a provincial underworld.

Diao opens on the rain-drenched streets as sullen gangster Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) waits impatiently for a rendezvous with his estranged wife Shujun (Wan Qian), only to be met by a stranger – “bathing beauty” Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), who explains she won’t be coming. A lengthy flashback reveals that Zenong is currently on the run after getting embroiled in a dispute over turf assignments at some kind of gangster briefing session during in which one of his guys shot one of the Cat brothers’ men in the leg. To settle the matter, the boss proposes a good old-fashioned competition to see who can nick the most bikes in one night with the winner getting the prime spot, but Zenong doesn’t know he’s been set up and mistakenly kills a policeman after being attacked by Cat Eyes. Realising there’s no longer any way out for him, Zenong’s last hope is to keep the police at bay long enough to get back in touch with his wife and convince her to turn him in to the police so that she can claim the reward money.

Like many men of his generation, Zenong couldn’t find the kind of honest work that would allow him to provide for his family and so he left home. Too ashamed to own his no-good gangster ways, he stayed away for five years but all that’s on his mind is family and this is the only chance that he will ever have to provide for them. Shujun isn’t even really sure she wants anything to do with her absentee husband, but is dragged back into his orbit once again harassed by the police every step of the way.

In striking contrast to most Chinese crime dramas, these police are far from a force for order. Describing Wild Goose Lake as a lawless land, they have their very own briefing to formulate a plan to catch Zenong but aren’t averse to underhanded tactics like threatening Shujun and trying to undermine her attachment to her husband through a fabricated story about a pregnant girlfriend. The line between cop and thug isn’t so thick as you’d think it would be, and you can’t trust the police any more than brotherhood or honour amongst thieves.

Devoid of morality, Wild Goose Lake is indeed a chaotic place defined by shifting loyalties and unexpected betrayals. Fights break out without warning, plans change, and there are no safe spaces. Bumbling as they are, the police are everywhere watching everything and trying to blend in. Anyone might be a cop, or secretly working against you. Zenong is on the classic wrong man path, except that he’s the right man and he knows it. He might not have pulled the trigger if he knew it was a policeman he was firing at, but pull the trigger he did and now he’ll have to make peace with it. Trying to outrun the law only so long as to subvert it, he finds himself slipping past checkpoints distracted by pointless officiousness and consistently evading the net.

When Shujun is unable to make it to the rendezvous, Aiai offers to take her place by turning Zenong in and claiming the reward money to pass it on to Zenong’s wife (minus a small fee), meaning they will need to trust each other until the mission is completed. Aiai, a dejected young woman supplementing her income with casual sex work as one of the “bathing beauties” found at the lake, longs to escape her dead end existence, eventually telling the policeman she’d use the reward money to open a small store back in her hometown. Like Shujun, she lives in a fiercely patriarchal, unforgiving society  from which there is little sign of escape or independence. Yet, as afraid of everything Zenong represents as she eventually becomes, Aiai remains steadfast and true, keeping her promise and paving the way towards a brighter future for Shujun and her son away from the haphazard chaos of Wild Goose Lake. An absurdist fable drenched in neon, Diao’s conception of life on the margins of provincial China is as bleak as they come but eventually finds space for positivity on returning to a world more ordinary in which two women walk away from the traumatic past arm in arm and the law has to be content to let them go.


The Wild Goose Lake was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English captions)

Long Day’s Journey into Night (地球最后的夜晚, Bi Gan, 2018)

Long Day's Journey into Night poster“It’s living in the past that’s scary” an old friend advises the hero of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (地球最后的夜晚, Dìqiú Zhòu de Yèwǎn). He knows she’s right, but like the best film noir heroes, the past is the place he can’t bear to visit or to leave. Stealing a title from a Eugene O’Neill play about a dysfunctional family individually lost in the fog of self-delusion and unable to escape the legacies of past trauma, Long Day’s Journey into Night is the story of a man looking for lost love but finding it only within the confines of his own memory, transient yet also eternal.

Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown of Kaili on the death of his father. As becomes apparent, there is nothing much of interest for him in a home he has avoided for years though an unexpected inheritance – a stopped clock his father could not stop looking at in the days before his death, yields unexpected treasure in the form of a black and white photograph of a young woman whose face has been burned out by a cigarette. Meanwhile, Luo walks us back through his own sad life story beginning at the turn of the Millennium when a recent divorce led to him letting down a friend, Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi) – a roguish gambler, who was later murdered by gangster Zuo (Chen Yongzhong). Chasing the man who killed his friend, Luo tracks down his lover who bears a striking resemblance to the woman in the photograph. She tells him her name is “Wan Qiwen” (Tang Wei), and fascination soon turns into romance. As Luo has already hinted to us, Qiwen is the woman who defines his dreams – another of the disappeared, a ghost of memory which won’t let him rest.

Like the hero of Kaili Blues, Luo spends the rest of the picture looking for the missing – the mother who abandoned him in childhood, the man who killed Wildcat, and of course Qiwen. A haunted man, Luo chases ghosts and spectres of memory, attempting to repair his damaged world but perhaps half hoping not to find what it is he’s looking for and risk losing the beauty of its absence. Qiwen spins him a tale a worthy of any film noir femme fatale – of a jealous boyfriend and an impossible future. We can only be together if we live in the stars, she tells him, contributing to a noirish sense of futility which seals Luo inside a looping bubble of perpetual heartbreak and unresolvable longing.

For Luo all women and none are Qiwen whose emerald clad image echoes in every female face he sees. Memories of Qiwen and of his mother mingle uncomfortably, overlap and become one as he looks for explanations behind his twin abandonments and the heavy wound he carries in his heart. In his opening voice over, Luo tells us that dreams rise up within him and he rises with them as if his body were made of hydrogen, but that his memories are made of stone – heavy, immutable, and impossible to escape. Yet the dreamland is precious to him, because it’s the only place he can see Qiwen and where she is all he sees. Luo’s answers, if they come at all come only in dreams where the jumbled elements of his ongoing investigation reorder themselves, come together, and present a new truth holding its own transitory revelations.

In a dream Luo meets another woman who looks just like Qiwen only this time called Kaizhen with whom he trades eternity for transience and to whom he eventually gifts both. Luo’s wandering dream takes place on the winter solstice – literally the longest night on Earth, but is still too short. Drenched in perpetual rainfall, this Kaili is a lonely place of darkness and neon – a perfect encapsulation of Luo’s interior world, shaped by film noir and tragic romance which nevertheless gives way to a 3D dreamscape free of the selective editing which makes memory an unreliable narrator. Luo says that the difference between film and memory is that films are all false while memory holds both truth and lies, but in dreams dualities coalesce and absolutes disappear in a union of truth and fiction, transience and eternity. Bi Gan builds on the aching poetry of Kaili Blues for beautifully composed exploration of memory and desire mediated through frozen time and a single endless night.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Short clip (no subtitles)