In the aftermath of a crisis, even the most rigid and socially immobilized of countries are vulnerable to a certain degree of tumult; a major breakdown of any kind always provide opportunists with a chance to change things (for themselves and/or for others) before society hardens back into a less porous state. The SARS epidemic, for example, created any number of tiny fractures in the Chinese economy, and the first scene of Wang Jing’s doggedly idealistic newspaper drama “The Best Is Yet to Come” finds a massive throng of people descending upon a Beijing job fair in the hopes of filling them.
The year is 2003 — a time that one columnist dubbed the “Age of Ambition” — and all of Beijing is suddenly buzzing with the sense that anything is now possible. But individual change is hard to come by in a nation of billions; under the surface and behind the scenes, hopes for a brighter tomorrow are being frustrated by the back-currents of yesterday, and many of the people trying to swim upstream are finding themselves helplessly ensnared by the collective fears of a system that would sooner let them drown.
One such person is an intrepid young reporter named Han Dong (played here by stone-faced social media star White K), who’s desperate to expose that dynamic but — in a cruelly ironic twist — can’t escape a class-related handicap of his own: Despite his success as an anonymous blogger during the early days of internet journalism, he can’t even get an internship at a city newspaper without a college degree. Or a high school degree, for that matter. But Dong won’t give up.
The tireless Rudy Ruettiger of local journalism, he insists that his passion makes him uniquely qualified for a job at the Jingcheng Times; our man is on the beat for less than a year before his nose for injustice leads him to a monumental story that could impact millions of lives. And so the stage is set for a true enough tale of raw promise and unrealized potential, told across a debut feature that manages to embody both of those elements along the way.
Cleaving closer to the rigor and optimism of “Spotlight” than it does to the haunted poetry of the Sixth Generation films that Wang cites as his inspirations (the work of his mentor, producer, and actor Jia Zhangke chief among them), “The Best Is Yet to Come” opens with a flurry of documentary footage so raw and wounded that it betrays some of the more contrivedly manufactured scenes that follow. “It was devastating,” a woman says as she stares off into the middle distance. “My whole world collapsed. I used to have hopes, now all swept away.” Another wonders, “How could I go on living if I was a danger to others? Like a monster, sort of.”
Wang makes us wait for the context we need to understand whatever misfortune befell these outcasts, but the truth is galling when it finally arrives. They’re not SARS victims, but rather some of the more than 100 million Chinese people who are infected with Hepatitis B, and have been denied jobs — and lives — because their health records make them pariahs in a country reeling from an unrelated outbreak and vulnerable to anti-scientific paranoia (unlike a coronavirus, Hep B can only be transmitted via bodily fluids). Dong, who’s struggling to peel off a label of his own, empathizes with their plight in a way that many of Beijing’s “more educated” reporters never could. Alas, he can’t tell their story unless someone agrees to print it.
A hectic and scattered first act eventually gives way to a more focused tale of hard-nosed reporting, but Dong is all too easy to lose in the shuffle before it does. Wang introduces his civilian hero through sketch-like glimpses of life in turn-of-the-millennium Beijing; the electricity of a world in flux swarms through a city so cramped that Dong has to step over six different people just to get to the bathroom. He’s moved from the country with his girlfriend (Miao Miao), who the movie soon loses in the shuffle — they don’t break up or anything, she’s just stuck being the woman behind the man. Dong only has time for hustle. For wearing down the gatekeepers who are standing in his way. For cornering editors in small dive bars and telling anyone who will listen that “reporting isn’t about diplomas, it’s about keen observations.”
We’re talking about a guy who blogged under the alias “Virtuous Gentleman” and carries a book with him called “Decisive Moments in History” — is it really possible for a good reporter to be so guileless? An internet celebrity whose bid for artistic seriousness creates a nice meta-textual rhyme with the character he plays, White K is able to sell the idea with a clenched performance that’s powered by sheer idealism. He’s stubborn enough to believe in a better future, and smart enough to realize that it won’t always be waiting for him.
When a devastating setback inspires a fellow reporter to lament that “there’s nothing we can change,” it only inspires Dong to work harder. The film’s most affecting moment finds him celebrating his first published story on the same day that Yang Liwei becomes the first person China ever sent into space; for Han Dong, that extraordinary reminder of an individual’s ability to reshape the collective imagination is powerful enough to alter the gravity of his entire life.
That Wang tries to repeat the same trick at the end of the movie (and to much hokier effect) is typical of a debut that quakes with the same anxious opportunism that spurs Dong into action. There’s a “see what sticks” vibe to Wang’s direction that sharpens certain scenes while also sanding off the edges around them. The training montage that takes us through Dong’s first days on the job feels lifted straight out of “The Social Network” (complete with the cold musical stylings of an ersatz Reznor and Ross), and Wang is so electrified by the energy of that sequence that he doesn’t seem to mind the frisson it causes with the more grounded scenes of investigative journalism that follow. Neither does veteran cinematographer Yu Lik Wai (“Platform,” “Mountains May Depart”), who strives to thread the needle between hard docudrama and the heightened emotions that roil under this one. By the time Dong backs into a bombshell story about Hep B patients buying forged health certificates, the movie is long overdue for an anchor heavy enough to hold its attention.
Even at this point in his career, Wang is skilled enough to find a strong emotional through-line amidst a mess of tattered threads. For every histrionic confrontation between the idealistic Dong and his establishment boss (“only three stories have ever been cancelled in the history of this newspaper!” he barks when our hero asks for a crucial edit), there’s a human moment about a man who can’t help but follow his sympathies.
It helps that actor Song Yang breathes such tortured pragmatism to the role of Zhang Bo, a composite figure who comes to represent the Hep B patients who reluctantly allowed Dong to speak for them. The uneasy friendship between those two men becomes the emotional nucleus of a movie that often doesn’t feel like it has one. But this isn’t a film to give up on. It may be too scattered to resolve with lasting catharsis or resonate with the COVID-19 outbreak it had no way to predict, but Wang’s debut is a biopic rooted in such unshakable belief that it leaves you feeling like change is always possible so long as people continue to believe it. The fact that a 2020 movie called “The Best Is Yet to Come” is able to own its title without a hint of irony is all the proof you need that it was made with the total courage of its convictions.
“The Best Is Yet to Come” premiered in the Orizzonti section of the 2020 Venice International Film Festival, and will play at the Toronto International Film Festival later this month. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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