Fittingly for a pandemic year, both Chinese selections for 2020’s Toronto International Film Festival rest at the intersection of public health and social consciousness. While Hao Wu’s 76 Days depicts the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, Wang Jing’s The Best Is Yet to Come (不止不休) addresses a silent epidemic of discrimination against Hepatitis B carriers that’s plagued China for decades.
Wang is a protégé of celebrated Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke; he assistant directed Jia’s Ash is Purest White, Mountains May Depart, and A Touch of Sin. With nostalgically stirring visuals and a socially aware storyline, The Best Is Yet to Come shows positive influences from Jia’s mentorship, and represents a strong solo directorial debut for Wang. The film’s choice of an investigative journalist protagonist is also laudable given China’s tightening media environment. However, The Best Is Yet to Come’s artistry and ambition comes with tradeoffs in narrative focus and character development, making it less accessible than other noted Chinese social issue films like Dying to Survive.
Passion of the Journalist
As stirring music plays in the background, The Best Is Yet to Come begins with video interviews of ordinary Chinese describing an unnamed tragedy. “I used to have so many dreams, many ambitions—all swept away in a flash,” one man recounts. It’s not until later we learn they’re remembering the moments they received diagnoses for Hepatitis B, a predominantly asymptomatic disease that affects 120 million Chinese. Since the 1990s, China’s Hepatitis B carriers have suffered systemic employment and social discrimination due to a mistaken belief that they can transmit the disease in public spaces.
The interviews fade to a bustling job fair. It’s Beijing, year 2003. Within minutes, we learn about the plight of our protagonist, Han Dong (played by White K). A young man who’s migrated to Beijing from China’s northeast, Han aspires for a career in journalism. However, he’s a high school dropout who’s only published online postings—and thus receives nothing except rejections.
However, Han encounters a stroke of luck. Senior journalist Huang Jiang (played by Zhang Songwen) at the fictional Jingcheng Daily notices one of Han’s posts, and gives him an internship. After helping investigate a mine disaster in Shanxi, Han gains Huang’s trust, but also a stern admonition against being too sympathetic towards subjects. With increased autonomy, Han stumbles upon an illegal operation that helps Hepatitis B patients forge health reports in order to avoid discrimination. While the story could catapult Han to journalistic stardom, he soon encounters obstacles that force him to weigh sympathy against career advancement.
Nostalgia for a Better Time
Viewers familiar with Jia Zhangke’s work will see Wang Jing exhibit a similarly high quality of cinematography and production design in The Best Is Yet to Come. Rich colors and careful camerawork complement the film’s portrayal of sensitive subjects, and evoke a feeling of nostalgia for early 2000’s Beijing—an arguably more hopeful and carefree time than today, and a period that saw auteurs like Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai (of Beijing Bicycle) rise to prominence.
At the film’s start, China had just won a victory over SARS, and launched its first man into space; several fantastical daydream interludes reference the latter. Though life in 2003 remains tough, the possibilities seem endless. No trade wars rage, and China’s paramount leaders still have term limits. In fact, some Chinese critics have praised The Best Is Yet to Come’s authentic depiction of beipiao (北漂) drifters who came to Beijing in pursuit of their dreams during that era. We’d argue that even non-Chinese can feel the nostalgia leaking out of Wang’s sumptuous, bokeh-spotted scenery.
The early 2000s were also a better time for China’s investigative journalists, who’ve struggled to survive after Xi Jinping’s rise to power. Director Wang modeled Han Dong after a real reporter named Han Fudong, who actually wrote about the plight of Hepatitis B carriers during the 2000s, and became chief reporter for the Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报)—a major newspaper with a reputation for upsetting Beijing’s censors.
The Best Is Yet to Come might be the first and only Chinese feature film with an investigative journalist protagonist, something both fitting and courageous for 2020. It’s worth noting that the version that screened for festival press lacked the “dragon seal” indicating official government approval. The film doesn’t have a Chinese release date yet, and it’ll be interesting to compare the eventual Chinese theatrical cut with the international festival cut.
Despite its superb artistry and courageous depiction of social issues, The Best Is Yet to Come may not resonate as much as other socially conscious films. One apt comparison that most Western critics have missed is Dying to Survive—one of 2018’s top-grossing Chinese movies. Like The Best Is Yet to Come, Dying to Survive depicts a man who goes against the system to counter a public health injustice. However, Dying to Survive feels much more accessible because it has a more focused narrative, and better character development.
By trying to authentically depict Hepatitis B discrimination, investigative journalism, and early 2000’s beipiao all at once, The Best Is Yet to Come stretches itself too thin. As a result, even with video interviews and brief accounts from certain supporting characters, The Best Is Yet to Come doesn’t spend enough time pulling at heartstrings to build empathy for those who suffer from Hepatitis B discrimination. Pacing also suffers as a result. It takes too long for Han Dong to fully realize the plight of Hepatitis B carriers; by the time he does so, there’s not enough room in the movie for anything except a mellowed-out deus ex machina. In contrast, Dying to Survive devotes its complete attention to the sufferers of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, and has far less harried plot progression.
Han Dong also doesn’t develop too much as a character. He’s sympathetic and idealistic at the beginning, and simply becomes further rooted in those traits at the end. Whether miraculously gaining an internship or discovering the Hepatitis B story, Han’s path through the film seems unexpectedly easy. Though one supporting character eventually challenges him, Han’s response feels foregone and doesn’t represent a true change of heart. Compare this to the protagonist of Dying to Survive, who transforms from selfish aphrodisiac salesman to selfless life saver.
Even if The Best Is Yet to Come might not have the wide, resonant appeal of Dying to Survive, it’s still a significant member of China’s cinematic repertoire this year. The film continues a strong tradition of Chinese auteur works, and both directly and obliquely highlights social issues that deserve attention in 2020—whether the dashed dreams of Hepatitis B carriers, or the diminishing freedom of investigative journalists.
While China’s government officially banned employment discrimination based on Hepatitis B in 2010, stigma still persists to this day. Like with all types of systemic discrimination, change cannot come from policy alone—it must also come from people’s hearts. Hopefully, The Best Is Yet to Come can be a small part of this change.
• • •
The Best Is Yet to Come (Chinese: 不止不休)—China. Dialog in Mandarin Chinese. Directed by Wang Jing. First released September 2020 at the Venice International Film Festival. Running time 1hr 55min. Starring White K, Miao Miao, Zhang Songwen, Song Yang.
The Best Is Yet to Come screened at the 2020 Venice International Film Festival and 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.