The Chinese teen bullying drama “Better Days” is no easy watch, as we see a high school student endure constant and cruel physical and emotional abuses from her classmates. But director Derek Tsang says getting into the headspace of her character and enduring this punishment was no easy task for his lead actress, either.
At one point in the film, the main character’s bullies violently whip volleyballs at her, and Tsang had the difficult task of being the one to throw the volleyballs from off camera. Though Tsang had previously worked with star Zhou Dongyu on his film “Soul Mate,” he said he “pushed her really hard on set” this time around.
“A lot of the scenes I was pushing her very hard, and there were times where she was near to the point of breaking down. But she was very strong. She really wanted to do right to the character and to the film. She stayed strong for the whole film,” Tsang told TheWrap on Monday as part of the Awards and & International Screening Series. “I do appreciate it because she was really near the point of breaking down, but she braved through. She really wanted to do it well.”
“Better Days” is Hong Kong’s submission into the International Feature race at this year’s Oscars, and the film is about a girl named Chen Nian who goes to extreme lengths to guard herself from bullies in order to survive long enough to take her college exams and find a better future. After one of her friends commits suicide because of vicious bully attacks, those bullies become her own bullies. Chen Nian then finds comfort and a touching romance from a punk dropout (Jackson Lee) she asks to protect her.
Tsang’s film is punishing and hardly subtle but stylized and often romantic as it goes from a teen bullying drama to a love story to finally a crime procedural. And Tsang said in researching the film, he discovered numerous horror stories from around the globe and even discovered why bullying against girls is often “a lot more vicious.”
“There’s a lot of mind games going on, and then there’s also the vicious attacks that can happen. It’s just really vicious on many different levels. All the stories that we heard as we were doing research, it was brutal,” Tsang said. “They do a lot of different mind games. They would befriend you, then they would shame you in front of everyone.”
As for Zhou, Tsang had to send her some of these bullying videos and stories in order to better help her understand her character. Tsang said Zhou is completely different from her character, and it took her some time to blend in. But he said Zhou and he had an agreement upfront to given the audience a different side they hadn’t seen of her as an actress.
“If you know her, she is someone that would not, she would not take s— from people. If someone challenges her, if someone bullies her, she would fight back right away,” he said. “Everyday when we were on set when we were on set, it was constant beatings, constant abuses, so it was a really tough shoot for her.”
While “Better Days” is not based on a true story but instead a novel, the film draws from the reality and pressure of students taking the national exams across China, as well as the universal problem of bullying. Tsang says that while his film can’t directly solve the challenge of bullying around the world, he hopes it will start a larger conversation.
“It really dawned on us that it’s not something we can answer with a film. With the film, we want to raise the question, we want to raise the awareness, but I wouldn’t want to say that we have the answer that,” Tsang said. “There’s no slogan, there’s no easy way to say this. We just want to raise the awareness to let other people know there are other people going through these things. You are not alone.”
Watch the full video conversation here and above.