In April, the official Oscar winners for the 2021 Academy Awards were revealed. Although not an award-winner, one the nominees for Best International Feature Film was the crime thriller Better Days 少年的你 (shào nián de nǐ), directed by Derek Tsang. 

Even without winning, the nomination itself was an exciting moment for recent Chinese film history. Not only was this the first time a Hong Kong-born director received this nomination, but it has been 18 years since a Chinese film has been nominated. 

Official poster of Better Days

In fact, our very own Asia Society at the Movies aired this film in February, and conducted a Q&A with Director Tsang in partnership with the Asian World Film Festival. (For a Q&A with the director Derek Tsang, click here!)

However, the Chinese audience was not as happy as you might think. 

Better Days

First, let’s take a look at the movie. Better Days follows the story of a teenage girl, Chen Nian, who became a victim of vicious bullying. In her last year of high school, her only wish was to pass the college examinations and leave this city behind.

However, fate brought her into contact with Xiao Bei, a small-time criminal who had long since dropped out of school. While their unlikely friendship blossoms, the two get trapped deeper and deeper in a murder—a mystery whose truth could ruin their lives. 

Actress Zhou Dongyu and actor Yiyang Qianxi (Jackson Yee), scene from Better Days

When Better Days was released in 2019, it made over $220 million at the box office. This was unsurprising—after all, its main leads were Zhou Dongyu and Yiyang Qianxi (also known as Jackson Yee). 

Not only is Zhou considered one of the best Chinese actresses in the post-90s generation, but Yiyang also has a huge fan base as a mainstream pop-star.

Better Days, however, was Yiyang’s acting debut. Apart from his passionate fans, no one believed his acting would be on par with Zhou’s. 

Everyone was surprised when it was.  

But is it a classic?

Characters Chen Nian and Xiao Bei, scene from Better Days

Despite its commercial success, Chinese fans were surprisingly resigned to its nomination. Amongst other reasons, many filmgoers in China believed that Better Days just wasn’t on the same level as the previous Chinese nominees.

Before Better Days, there have been seven nominations for Chinese-language films, including The Red Lantern and Farewell, My Concubine. To date, there has only been one winner. That winner is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Actress Zhang Ziyi, scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

The Red Lantern, Farewell, My Concubine, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are absolute classics in Chinese film history. The reasons for their status include the prestige of their respective directors and leads. 

These films, especially Farewell, My Concubine, hold an exceptional weight in a Chinese filmgoer's heart. Directed by Chen Kaige, the epic spans across decades of modern Chinese history. 

Depicting the unusual friendship of two boys in a Beijing Opera troupe, we watch them live out their lives under the historical backdrop of a whole tumultuous century.

Furthermore, it was played by Zhang Guorong (also known as Leslie Cheung) and Gong Li. Both have become irreplaceable legends in China’s cinematic history. 

Actor Zhang Guorong (Leslie Cheung), scene from Farewell, My Concubine

Better Days, on the other hand, is a romantic crime thriller about teenagers. Before its release, no one took it seriously because of the stigma around its main lead, Yiyang Qianxi. 

Previously known as a member of a popular Mandopop boy-band, people thought it was irresponsible of him to 'toy around’ in a field without professional expertise. Of course, this all changed when the film was screened. 

But even after its commercial success, people had a hard time accepting its nomination.

Actress Zhou Dongyu, scene from Better Days

After all, “how can an acting newbie be compared to the legendary Leslie Cheung?” “How can this commercial feature be likened to the classics of Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou?”

Well, perhaps it shouldn’t be. Made decades apart from each other, they were made in completely different genres and for completely different purposes. 

Farewell, My Concubine was using the melodrama of two Beijing Opera stars to present a country’s history of upheaval. 

Better Days, on the other hand, only wanted to tell an intimate, personal tale of two high schoolers in love. It is a heartbreaking story of high school bullying and suicide. It is a captivating mystery about crime and murder. 

Furthermore, it is about growing up and finding light in a world of darkness.

Actress Zhou Dongyu, scene from Better Days

Better Days is not an epic saga like Farewell, My Concubine was--but that’s ok because it never tried to be. As one of the best films of the year, its nomination is proof enough of its worth.

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Emilie Zhang

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