Think Spotlight but shot by Yu Lik-wai, Jia Zhang-ke’s favorite DP. Sounds pretty neat, right? And for a while, The Best Is Yet to Come is an involving, topical newsroom drama: Wang Jing zips through the early, procedural-minded portion of his feature directorial debut, meshing the documentary influences of its producer (Jia, naturally) with the polish and scope of a bigger studio picture. The setting is 2003 Beijing: An amateur journalist and high school dropout, Han Dong (Bai Ke), migrates to the city with his girlfriend, Xiao Zhu (Miao Miao), both of them leaving behind unfulfilling lives at a factory. Han Dong has little luck landing a job in the city with his lack of credentials and educational background, but he eventually lucks into an internship at one of Beijing’s bigger papers, the Jingcheng Times. Successes on his first few assignments get Han Dong a foothold on the investigative reporter beat — and then he finds his front-page scoop, the existence of an illegal network facilitating fraudulent blood tests.
The Best Is Yet to Come also has some shades of Zodiac, if only for the earnest/grizzled dynamic shared between Han Dong and his superior, jaded veteran journalist Huang (Zhang Songwen, fresh off his role in China’s mega-popular procedural TV show The Bad Kids from earlier this year). It was Huang that recommended Han Dong for his internship, perceiving a talent for nuts-and-bolts reporting as well as an attentiveness to telling individuals’ stories, and it’s Huang who Han Dong eventually finds himself at loggerheads with in this film’s latter third. That disagreement also forms the moral and ethical crux of the film — as well as its refreshingly critical attitude toward governance in 21st century China. Specifically, Han Dong’s attitude toward his big-break story evolves: It turns out that the forged blood tests are a best-hope scenario for those that had Hepatitis-B during a time when China’s understanding of the disease was informed by lingering paranoia from the SARS epidemic and generally unfounded science, leading to a prohibition on hiring Hep-B positive people or allowing them into universities.
It’s at this point — when The Best Is Yet to Come finds its narrative and political purpose — that the film unfortunately settles into being a rather more staid and emotionally hokey message-movie, even while it also continues to shift focus on a whim to Han Dong’s romantic life with Xiao Zhu, who has almost no defining characteristics of her own (another similarity to Zodiac) aside from her tireless support for her boyfriend. There are also two really egregious surreal/fantasy moments involving flying CG pens and newspapers that contribute nothing and simply feel ported in from a much less serious-minded movie. And, as a leading man, Bai Ke — apparently a social media star, not an actor — is frustratingly blank (one more Zodiac similarity for the road). Despite all that, there’s plenty here that works, from Zhang’s acerbic, fast-talking performance to Wong’s often-affecting incorporation of extra-narrative testimonials from Hep-B positive people telling of their struggles to navigate life as social pariahs. And then there’s the estimable Yu Lik-wai on hand, of course, and his work here is way more compositionally striking and visually dynamic than this ever needed. Given a more streamlined screenplay, and maybe the firing of a special effects tech, Wong and Yu probably could have laid-out Spotlight and the plurality of similar films that have cropped up in its wake; thankfully, I hear that they have some better stuff coming…
Published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 4.