Greetings again from the darkness. Chinese gaokao is the College Entrance Exams that determine the future of high school students and their families. The pressure is extreme for the kids, and when the film opens, the exams are only 60 days away. One of the students leaps to her death from an upper breezeway to the concrete courtyard below. Her fellow classmates converge on the scene with cell phones recording the tragedy. One girl, Chen Nian, quietly covers up the body. While most assume the pressure of the impending test was too severe for the girl, Nian knows better. The relentless bullies that motivated the suicide have now turned their attention to Nian.
Director Derek Tsang (aka Kwok Cheung Tsang) delivers a beautiful film with compelling characters and a heart-wrenching story. Jiuyue Xi’s novel, In His Youth, In Her Beauty” has been adapted for the screen by co-writers Wing-Sum Lam, Yuan Li, Yimeng Xu, and Nan Chen. Filmed in 2018, the Chinese government delayed its release due to concerns over how its society would be perceived, given extreme bullying, class differences, and the extensive use security cameras throughout. Instead, we note the similarities in people, and how young people carry burdens that often go unacknowledged.
Zhou Dongyu gives a terrific performance as Chen Nian. She’s an excellent, devoted student who has no one to depend on thanks to a mostly absentee mother who spends her time scamming for money and dodging creditors. Nian has no real friends, and her closest companion was the one whose body lay crumpled in the courtyard. Nian stumbles into a situation that could not be described as a ‘meet-cute’, and soon she has requested street punk Xiao Bei (played by Jackson Yee) to act as her protector against the bullies, so that she may focus on the exams. Additionally, she’s been questioned by the police in regards to the suicide, and Detective Zhang (Yin Fang) takes a particular interest given his knowledge of schoolyard bullies.
The bond between equally adrift and confused teenagers Nian and Bei grows, despite his being a dropout. Are they star-crossed lovers? Is it a budding romance? What makes it interesting is that it doesn’t even matter. What does matter is the courage these two youngsters show in the face of adversity. Does it go too far? The third act will leave you wondering just what is the answer to their dilemma. How harshly can you judge those in self-preservation mode when the school motto is “Work Hard. No Regrets”? There is a retro feel to Tsang’s filmmaking style, and we are left with the reminder that “used to be” infers a sense of loss … and we all experience different types of loss. Excellent filmmaking that rightly earned an Oscar nomination.