Director: Derek Tsang
Cast: Zhou Dongyu, Jackson Yee, Yin Fang, Huang Jue, Zhou Ye, Zhang Yifan
Runtime: 2 hrs 16 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: Clover Films and Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 7 November 2019
Synopsis: Seventeen-year-old Nian is the subject of cruel bullying at high school when she meets Bei, a tough street kid. The two teenagers find a kindred spirit in each other that gradually rises above love, forming a world of their own. But the cocoon is crushed when they are being dragged into a teenage girl murder case as prime suspects. An emotional roller coaster that is heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time, the China coming-of-age movie offers thought-provoking insights into the intense competition faced by nearly 10 million teenagers every year who sit for the National College Entrance Examination and national issues of school bullying. If you are one amongst 10 million to secure a promising future with a topnotch college passport, would you kill to do it?
Most coming of age movies make you feel good at the end of the film. This one definitely doesn’t. The heavy handed approach to tell a story may not go down well with everyone, but that doesn’t mean the filmmakers of this drama doesn’t have an important message to deliver. Instead, the social message is so timely, we are hoping that this can be screened for in schools for educators and students to have a better understanding of the social issue.
The film sets the tone from the start by telling you the seriousness of bullying. The film’s protagonist is Chen Nian (played perfectly by Zhou Dongyu), a high school student who is becoming increasingly stressed by the upcoming ‘gaokao’, an annual academic examination in China that is a prerequisite for entrance into higher education institutions at the undergraduate level. Things become worse with her desk mate’s sudden suicide, which greatly traumatises the poor girl. She is then subjected to bullying by her classmates, especially from a trio of popular girls who do very unkind things to her.
If you think this is going to be funny like Mean Girls, wait till you see how cruel the bullies can get.
Chen Nian then crosses paths with Xiao Bei (played with gusto by Jackson Yee), a street smart dude who commits petty crimes, and the two form an unlikely bond that sees him becoming her protector and boyfriend. She moves into his run down apartment, tries to concentrate on preparing for the important test and dreams of having a better life once she gets enrolled into a prestigious university.
The film changes tone in the second half and becomes a murder mystery when one of the bullies is found dead at a construction site. Things become more dramatic and you are left guessing who committed the murder, and the intentions behind the act.
After helming the critically acclaimed Soul Mate (2016) which also stars Zhou, Derek Tseng returns with this second film which explores a social issue without sugar coating anything. Presented in an artistically edgy style, the dark allies and underbellies of Chen Nian and Xiao Bei’s world are places you don’t want to venture into. The grittiness of the film may not go down well with mainstream audiences who prefer this genre of movies which are brimming with positive energy.
Stretching over two hours, the 136 minute film may not be a piece of work that is easy to sit through. However, it provokes the audience into pondering about the severity of social issues, and whether there is anything we can do about it. Zhou and Yee’s intense performances will keep you constantly engaged, as you wonder how one can go through such painfully romantic teenage years.
After blocking the film from the 2019 Berlinale and subsequently preventing a late June theatrical release, Chinahas finally greenlit the film in late October. No official details were shared publicly, but we are guessing that the problems explored in the film are so real, the authorities had some problems showing them to the world. The film now ends with a series of messages about what has been done to address bullying, and we hope the measures are really put in place to deter these terrible acts.
(A dark but important coming-of-age story that is anything but feel-good)
Review by John Li