Bullying its way to the top

In spite of almost no promotion a bitter drama dominates the box office

Zhou Donyu-w

Zhou Dongyu: plays a bullied student in dark movie Better Days

Nobody likes a bully, although a film about bullying is proving pretty popular in China.

The response to Better Days, a coming-of-age-drama about violence at school, was so strong that the film has dominated the box office since the end of October, earning Rmb1.1 billion ($154 million).

Starring boy band member Yi Yangqianxi, 19, and actress Zhou Dongyu, 27, the movie tells the story of high school student Chen Nian (Zhou), who witnesses a friend committing suicide after relentless harassment at school. The bullies turn their attention to Chen, but she finds protection after a chance encounter with petty criminal Xiao Bei (Yi). When her lead tormentor is found dead, the two are dragged into the ensuing murder investigation.

Cry Me a Sad River, released last year – an adaptation of a novel by best-selling writer Guo Jingming (see WiC471) – touched on a similar theme, concluding its run with Rmb400 million in box office takings.

Given that the producers got just three days notice from regulators that the film could be shown in its designated release slot, there was little time for marketing and promotion, an investor in Better Days admitted to WiC. As a result, it has had to rely more on the strong fan base of Yi, who is one of China’s most influential celebrities. Word of mouth has been helpful too. On Douban, the TV series and film review site, Better Days has a strong rating of 8.4 out of 10, which is very high for a domestic feature.

Critics have also commended the focus on school violence and bullying, a problem that China Daily admits hasn’t been given enough attention. One scene depicts the group of bullies hitting Chen in the head with a basketball during gym class, pretending it is accidental. In others, she is pushed off a staircase and locked up in the toilet. At one point, Chen is so afraid she hides in a rubbish dumpster, where she is bitten by rats.

“For someone who was a victim of school bullying it was hard for me to sit through the film. However, I definitely had a good cry in the end,” one cinemagoer wrote.

“I don’t think anyone that has seen it will say it is an entertaining film,” was the verdict of the investor in the movie that WiC spoke to. “It is very profound, meaningful and thought provoking. I think it really spoke to a lot of issues like upward mobility and school bullying… It is a reflection of what takes place every day in small cities and towns across the country, where there are a lot of migrant workers and the living conditions are very poor.”

The gritty subject matter wasn’t a favourite for industry regulators, it seems. The film was abruptly pulled from this year’s Berlin International Film Festival in February for “post-production reasons”, a euphemism widely understood to refer to the censor’s displeasure. Three days before its originally scheduled release date in June, it was yanked again without explanation.

Part of the reason for the censorship is the topic. The authorities regularly play down news coverage of school violence and social media platforms like Sina Weibo often excise posts about campus violence out of fear of copycat behaviour, reckons the China Daily.

In fact, some audience members have claimed that the harassment in the film isn’t nearly as cruel as some of the bullying that they had experienced in real life. One video that has been circulating shows a 16 year-old schoolgirl in Jiangsu being slapped in the face and forced to kowtow, after a row over switching seats in a classroom. In another video, a young girl in Xi’an is kicked and beaten down a staircase while others look on.

Intimidation like this sometimes ends in tragedy. In a better known case from 2016, a teenager killed himself, leaving a letter to his family explaining that he couldn’t cope with the humiliation and harassment at the hands of his classmates.

One problem, a blogger wrote, is that if children are not yet 14 – the age of criminal responsibility under Chinese law – they won’t be held responsible for their actions.

Schools and teachers often tend to downplay the seriousness of the bullying too. “When it comes to school violence, while bullies inflict enormous physical and mental trauma on their victims, the perpetrators, more often than not, will go unpunished. Indeed, in the case of the victim in Xi’an, after an investigation, the school said it had sternly reprimanded the students but that nothing more could be be done because the case involved minors. If the school is willing to turn a blind eye to school violence and if society as a whole takes a negligent approach towards bullying, aren’t we accomplices in the cases of those who end up killing themselves?” the blogger concluded.

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