It’s China’s movie of the moment. Starring TFBoy Jackson Yee and “it-girl” Zhou Dongyu, bullying drama Better Days made a surprise comeback from censorship late last week, hitting cinemas screens with just three days’ notice — and has already gone on to top 85 million USD at the box office, making it the highest-grossing film in the world this past weekend.
The film has received rave reviews for its bold portrayal of school bullying in China, as well as for the performances of its two young leads in portraying the tender relationship between protagonists Xiao Bei and Chen Nian. Following domestic hype, it’s now going international with a run in selected cinemas in the US and UK from November 8.
Yet in some corners, the film is also being called out for alleged plagiarism.
Bullying Drama “Better Days” Makes Unexpected Comeback from Censorship
Zhou plays Chen Nian, a seemingly meek student about to sit China’s notorious college entrance exam the gaokao, who witnesses a friend commit suicide after being relentlessly bullied. The bullies soon turn their attention to Chen, but she manages to find protection of sorts after a chance encounter with petty criminal Xiao Bei, played by an almost constantly bloodied Yee. Yet when the lead bully is found dead, Chen and Xiao Bei are sucked into a murder investigation.
The film, which features a public service announcement from Yee about combatting bullying (as well as details of government action on the issue) in the end credits, has dominated social media conversation in recent days. However, while it’s earned an average rating of 8.4 out of 10 from the hard-to-please users on Douban, the movie has also come under fire for supposedly hewing a little too close for comfort to the storylines of two Keigo Higashino books: Journey Under the Midnight Sun and the Detective Galileo tale Devotion of Suspect X.
Better Days is adapted from the novel Young and Beautiful by Jiu Yuexi, which some Chinese netizens have accused of lifting elements from Higashino’s works. A number of Weibo posts detailing such similarities have attracted significant attention on the microblogging platform. Here’s one example (in Chinese and with lots of spoilers), with over 400,000 likes and nearly 15,000 comments.
At the weekend, Better Days‘ director Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang was forced to answer questions about the apparent semblance of his film to Higashino’s books. “I was immediately moved to make a film after reading the original text,” Tsang told a press conference, according to The Paper (link in Chinese), also stating that he hadn’t read the Higashino novels in question. “I only read the book [Young and Beautiful] once, then didn’t touch it again,” Tsang went on to say. “We just took the bits we thought were the best from the novel, then added a lot of our own ideas including changing the entire structure and the narrative. As far as I’m concerned, this is the healthiest way to adapt a novel. I don’t want to be restricted by a text or boxed in.”
Fans of the film (and its star actors) have leapt to its defence, piling into the comments sections on social media posts to dismiss the plagiarism accusations.
The jury seems to be out on whether Tsang and co really were copying someone else’s homework, but such allegations aside the movie helps to surface an important social issue and tackles the topics of school bullying and student pressure in China reasonably well. On that basis alone, its emergence from apparent censorship limbo into mainstream success ought to be welcomed.
Playwright Yang Zhefen Shines a Painful Light on Bullying Culture in China
In the meantime, the controversy is helping keep Better Days in the headlines, and consequently keep cinema-goers in seats as the film’s box office take continues to climb.
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