Cover Hong Kong director Derek Tsang talks to Tatler about his film, "Better Days"

Derek Tsang’s controversial thriller "Better Days" made it all the way to the Oscars, but what the Hong Kong director really won was the respect of his critics

Derek Tsang was lying on his sofa at home after a long day on March 15 when his phone started lighting up with messages from friends who were congratulating him, just at the moment it was announced he had become the first native Hong Kong director to be nominated for best international feature at the Academy Awards.

“I knew it was going to be that day, but I didn’t know there was a live broadcast,” Tsang says, and although he was hopeful for a nod for his teenage film noir Better Days, which handily swept the Hong Kong Film Awards and received multiple international prizes, he was not watching the news very closely. “That’s when it hit me that we were in the final five, and I just became elated, hugging my wife and jumping around and screaming.”

In the highly competitive, overly scrutinised world of the Oscars, they say it is an honour just to be nominated, and in this case, they would be correct. As anyone following that horse race would know, from the moment the awards were announced, it was the Danish drama Another Round, starring Mads Mikkelsen, that would be “hard to beat”, as The New York Times columnist Kyle Buchanan politely assessed, and which would ultimately win the award. Still, Tsang saw the nomination as an opportunity to expand his already considerable mark in cinema well beyond Chinese-speaking audiences. Better Days was a phenomenon in China, grossing US$230 million, and was the highest-grossing film in the world upon its release, driven partly by its mystery thriller plot centred around a bullied high school student, and partly by the popularity of its leads, Zhou Dongyu and the TFBoys superstar Jackson Yee.

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Rough road

“It’s kind of conflicting in a way, because on one hand, you know the film travelled well because of how prevalent the issue of bullying is, which is why people from different countries and cultures can relate very well,” Tsang says. “But on the other hand, it’s very satisfying as a filmmaker to be so well-received across different places for your work.”

While the success of the film has opened many doors for Tsang, and sparked media interest in the story of how the young director, the son of the controversial Hong Kong actor and producer Eric Tsang, paved his own way in the industry to achieve what is arguably a greater glory, Better Days has been dogged by controversies and setbacks from the beginning, most notably for running afoul of censors throughout China’s stringent film screening process. But Tsang also represents a new generation of Asian directors who have learnt how to work within the system while maintaining their integrity and, in the case of Better Days, creating what could still be described as a biting social commentary that highlights real-life problems within the contemporary education system in China.

“If you’re willing to go and seek out the story, there are a lot of very interesting ones in China that are very worthwhile to tell,” Tsang says with characteristic delicacy. “I honestly believe that there are a lot of things that you can do as a filmmaker in China. There’s always that issue of the censorship that you have to learn. That’s just the rules of the game.”

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Inside knowledge

Tsang is certainly smooth. Having grown up with some knowledge of the inside workings of Hong Kong’s film industry, he is adept at navigating potential landmines and online barbs while maintaining a smile on his face. Tall and handsome, and famous in Hong Kong as an actor who appeared in more than 50 films before directing his own, Tsang, who is 41, seems simultaneously humble and glamorous as he describes his life and family, from his half-sister, the Taiwanese singer and actress Bowie Tsang, to his wife, the actress Venus Wong, whom he married in a Japanese forest in 2019. He is hardly square. In place of wedding bands, Tsang has nine lines tattooed across three fingers of his left hand and Wong has six lines across two fingers of her right hand, representing their wedding date, September 6.

Tsang’s upbringing was somewhat unusual in that, although his father remained married to his mother, Rebecca Chu, until her death last year, the family lived separately and for many years he was largely out of the picture.

“Every family is unique, but my family is unique in the way that we don’t often see each other,” Tsang says. “But even though we were always separated, we’ve been very close from day one.”

Chu raised her children in Canada, where Tsang fell in love with cinema through the films of Wong Kar-wai and completed his studies at the University of Toronto before moving back to Hong Kong as a young adult. “That’s when I had that naïve notion that if you are in love with watching films, you immediately have the ability to make a film yourself,” he recalls. “I just really had that urge.” He began working for the producer Peter Chan, assisting casting directors, working on continuity, script supervision and eventually acting. He was often cast in “bad boy” roles in a variety of campy sex comedies.

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I had that naïve notion that if you are in love with watching films, you immediately have the ability to make a film yourself
Derek Tsang

From acting to directing

“Each step really helped me understand what filmmaking is,” he says. “But the acting thing was a complete accident. It just so happened I was behind the camera and the director asked me if I wanted to be in the film. I thought it was just going to be a one-off thing, but I went on to have more than ten years of acting experience, and that really helped me as a director a lot, because I think that I understand where actors are coming from when we’re shooting on set. I understand their concerns.”

During that time, Tsang also became closer with his father and came to understand why he had constantly been away from home, “because when you are engaged in a film, it’s kind of like your whole world is that production—it can get that intense”. He also began achieving success of his own, which Tsang attributes to the guidance he received from the acclaimed producer Jojo Hui, who became his mentor and eventually the producer of his solo directing debut, the romantic drama Soul Mate (2016), and his partner in Goodfellas Pictures, which made Better Days in partnership with several Chinese studios.

Tsang says that although his own childhood was relatively uneventful, he was fascinated by the subject of bullying, and when Hui presented him with the original novel In His Youth, In Her Beauty by Jiu Yuexi, he immediately recognised the potential for a blockbuster, despite predictions from his peers that the subject matter would be too sensitive to clear censors. In fact, days before it was to premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019, the movie was pulled for “technical reasons”, a common euphemism for films that are delayed over content issues. Tsang insisted on portraying the environment he had seen in Chinese schools realistically, including the pressures on students during preparations for the National College Entrance Exams in a ritual known as gaokao, and a scene in which a bullied student throws herself off a school roof that was inspired by real-life events.

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Against all odds

The final cut has continued to stir debate over artistic expression, as The Hollywood Reporter reported in April that key scenes had been cut from Tsang’s film, which is set in Chongqing and filmed in Mandarin, and the ending had been sanitised. The article also claimed the film had been poorly received in Hong Kong for its subject matter and had a dismal box office (although it did not note that most cinemas in the city were intermittently closed because of protests in 2019 and then for most of 2020 due to Covid-19). In a separate contretemps, the novelist Jui also was accused of plagiarism over similarities to the works of a Japanese author, causing some viewers to reject the film. Still, the Oscar nomination has served as some validation for the artist. Better Days is only the third Hong Kong submission to make it to the international feature shortlist, after Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Farewell My Concubine (1993).

I honestly believe that there are a lot of things that you can do as a filmmaker in China. There’s always that issue of the censorship that you have to learn. That’s just the rules of the game
Derek Tsang

“I really didn’t feel the slightest sense of loss, because it was completely beyond expectations to get to this point,” he says after the awards. “Knowing that I still have many shortcomings, I will continue to work hard, hoping to shoot better works.”

Regardless, Tsang has faced a year of politically sensitive questions over virtually every aspect of Better Days that are not unlike those aimed at other directors whose work has crossed borders to achieve acclaim in the West, including Oscars best picture and director winner Chloé Zhao, and the filmmaker Yonfan, whose remarks critical of the Hong Kong protest movement at the Venice International Film Festival in 2019 stirred criticism back home. In a sense, it is fair to draw a parallel to the bullying of the subjects in Better Days, which purposely shifts perspectives to confuse the viewer’s understanding of who is the victim and who is the tormentor. 

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“After talking to a lot of people and after we sat down and we started writing, it came to me that a film cannot really provide the answer to why bullying exists, because it’s an issue that exists across different cultures and times,” Tsang says. “It’s an issue of human nature.” Rather than seek safer ground, Tsang says his next project will focus on the stories of Southeast Asians in Hong Kong, offering another side to the story of refugee communities that have largely been portrayed in a negative light, whether due to social challenges, discrimination or the effects of gang violence. “The story needs to be told from their point of view,” Tsang says.

Despite the brickbats thrown his way throughout his career and especially this year, Tsang remains decidedly optimistic about the future of filmmaking in Hong Kong. Particularly those who really engage with the subject matter will always find a way to tell a story. With Better Days, he says, “We felt like there must be a way, because even though it’s a sensitive subject matter, there is still a lot of compassion and kindness in the film. We always believed that would be expressed through our film and that it would come to see the light of day.”

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