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.
“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.”