China is the only country in the world that is allowed two entries in the International category of the Academy Awards, one for China and one for Hong Kong. As anyone who isn’t blind to international politics knows, the Chinese government has crushed the democracy movement in Hong Kong and fully incorporated Hong Kong into China. Since 2011, the Motion Picture Academy has not allowed Puerto Rico to submit an entry because it is part of the United States, even though Puerto Ricans cannot vote in U.S. elections. Yet Hong Kong, which is 100% part of China, gets its own entry. Either the leaders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are completely clueless or else they don’t mind groveling to the Chinese dictatorship in order to gain access to the potentially huge Chinese market.

Other dictatorships, such as Iran and Cuba, have entered films that are critical of their own societies. Not China, which has repeatedly entered films that are either blatant or subtle propaganda. Then, along came Better Days (Shaonian de ni), an exposé of high school bullying, academic pressure and smalltime criminal gangs. Not a pretty picture. In fact, when Better Days was accepted to be shown at the Berlin Film Festival, the Chinese government forced it to be withdrawn. Then, in June 2020, its domestic release was also cancelled.

Finally, the Chinese authorities came up with a compromise: they inserted at the beginning and end of the film public service announcements saying what a wonderful job the national and provincial governments are doing to combat and control bullying. This tactic is so clumsy that it would be laughable…except that it worked. Better Days went on to be a box-office hit in China and gained an Academy Awards nomination.

Directed by Derek Tsang, Better Days stars Zhou Dongyu as high school senior Chen Nian, who is preparing to take the “Gaokao,” the National College Entrance Exam. The pressure is intense as school authorities lead the students in chants about beating the exam, as if it were a foreign enemy. Nian’s pressure is heightened by the fact that her mother, with whom she lives, makes her living selling illegal fake goods.

Chen Nian’s only friend, Hu Xiaodie, a victim of bullying, commits suicide by jumping from an upper floor of the school. While other students snap photos of Xiaodie’s dead body, Nian covers her up, which puts her next in line for becoming the mean kids’ main bullying victim.

Along the way, Nian meets a petty hoodlum, Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee). They make a pact. While Nian studies for the exam with her goal of making a better world, Bei agrees to protect her from the increasingly violent bullies. Inevitably, these two low-esteem lost souls fall in love.

Better Days is a relatively corny story saved by top-class directing, acting and cinematography.