(2021) Drama (Well Go USA) Dongyu Zhao, Jackson Yee, Fang Yin, Ye Zhou, Yue Wu, Jue Huang, Yifan Zhang, Yao Zhang, Xinyi Zhang, Allen Zhao, Xuanming Gao, Xintong Xie, Ran, Luyun Heliao, Bozhan Ju, Yingming Wang, Wellong Li, Zhongyu Guo, Dian Liu, Hu Pang, Xueping Liu, Meehz Chen, Mingyang Zhang, Meixi Wang, Yong Liu, Rumeng Liao. Directed by Derek Tsang
I think that it’s a given that people of a certain age – including my own – do not understand just how much pressure is on teens these days, how much they are expected to perform, particularly in certain cultures, from an academic and social standpoint. It is a wonder that everyone below the age of 18 hasn’t had at least one nervous breakdown by now.
In China, there is additional pressure if you can believe it. Getting into a good college is dependent on the student’s performance on a two-day long entrance exam known as the Gaokao exams; they are like the SATs on steroids. High school seniors are drilled endlessly on these exams which determine the placement of students in good universities, or less so. A student’s entire future rides on these exams, as well as the honor of their family and their school. Failure is unthinkable, and kids have been known to crack under the pressure.
One such hurls herself from a third story balcony into the rocky courtyard below, leaving a bloody mess for her fellow students to gawp at and take cell phone pictures of. That is, until her only friend Chen Nian (D. Zhao) lays her jacket over the corpse. It is a tender and decent gesture, but it puts Chen directly in the crosshairs of resident mean girl Wei Lei (Y. Zhao) and her posse of acolytes. Now Chen is being bullied.
It isn’t as if Chen isn’t under extraordinary pressure to begin with. Her mother (Wu) ekes out a living on the edge by selling illegal contraband. One step ahead of the law and about half a step ahead of creditors, she is often absent, leaving Chen to fend for herself and study on her own. “Graduate from a good college and we can escape this hellhole,” mommy tells her on a rare visit. I’m sure that helps Chen study harder, right?
But Chen knows what the right thing to do is, and she puts her nose to the grindstone, but when she sees a young teen boy being beaten savagely, she calls the police. Xiao Bei (Yee) is nothing if not grateful. Even though he never graduated high school and lives as a low-level thug on the streets, he determines to be Chen’s protector. Despite themselves, the two begin to develop strong feelings for each other. Meanwhile, the bullying of Chen intensifies, leading to an assault. The school, focused on the upcoming exams, is ineffectual particularly since Wei Lei’s parents are well-connected. The cops are well-meaning but also ineffectual. So as things escalate, something is bound to go wrong. Can Chen survive in the pressure cooker?
This amazing film almost didn’t make it to these shores. At it’s debut at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, it was suddenly and without explanation, pulled as Chinese censors seemed to take a dim view of the portrait of the way young people are treated (one girl, suspended from school, is smacked around by her father in front of the entire school). There is an unspoken indictment of the Chinese method that promotes excellence at any cost. It also depicts students being crushed by the pressure. It is at the least an unflattering portrayal of the Chinese education system.
But just as inexplicably, the Chinese allowed it to be released and it did marvelous box office just as the pandemic was starting to hit. It’s based on a popular online novel, The film is beautifully shot by cinematographers Saba Mazloum and Jing Pin Yu. What you’re going to remember, however, is the startling performance by Dongyu Zhao, whose sad face is often expressionless, but her eyes and body language tell us everything we need to know. When her friend commits suicide, she is the only one to exhibit any sadness or remorse. It’s stunning work.
But the movie really drags, particularly in the final third where the story jumps around a bit. Much of the movie is told in flashback but we’re not really told by whom – I assume it’s an adult version of Chen as a teacher, but that’s never explicitly said. An opening title card also explains that the problem with bullying is a global one (which it is) and not explicitly a Chinese issue, although given the pressures placed on students I’m sure that contributes to the problem. A closing title card explains that since the movie was set the Chinese government has taken steps to address the problem, including punishing schools and bullies. I wonder if that isn’t treating the symptoms rather than curing the underlying cause of them.
REASONS TO SEE: Raw and intense. Dongyu Zhao gives a wonderful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly long and occasionally tedious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the nominees for the upcoming Oscars for Best International Film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mean Girls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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