As the 93rd Academy Awards approaches, one of the most compelling underdog contenders in Derek Tsang’s Better Days. Representing Hong Kong, the film explores the harrowing effects of bullying from the perspective of a young schoolgirl and the man who becomes her friend and protector. In a recent Awards Radar interview, Tsang discussed the social context behind the film’s themes, working with Chinese censors and the humbling surprise of an Oscar nomination.
Shane Slater: How do you get attached to direct this film?
Derek Tsang: Well, I was given the novel when we wrapped on my first film Soulmate, which we also shot with Zhou Dongyu (lead actress for Better Days). When we wrapped on that, my producer gave me this novel and said take a look, there’s something that I think is quite interesting to see whether you would be interested in doing for your next project. So I brought it home and I read it in one night.
When I found out that it’s about bullying, it just really intrigued me because I’ve always wanted to make a film that tackled the issue. For the past four or five years, I’ve always wanted to find a way or an angle to make a film about bullying. And it just so happened that this novel came to me. Then after I read it, I just fell in love with it. And I just told my producer, let’s do it. And we started around a year and a half to two years of writing.
SS: Did you strictly follow the novel or did you change some things in the adaptation?
DT: The writers that we had this time were the same as my last film. Soulmate is also based on a novel and we really had a good working experience. We took a lot of liberties in adapting. So we basically just take what we think is the essence of the novel but we don’t want to be limited by it. So we would maybe go through it once or twice together. And then from that point on, we just kept what we felt like is the essence or what we liked from the novel and we basically just put it behind us. So there’s been a lot of changes from the novel to the film.
SS: The film tackles such a serious and sensitive issue. How did you approach your filmmaking to ensure that wasn’t exploitative while bringing across your intended message?
DT: One of the reasons why I’ve always been interested or intrigued by the whole issue of bullying is I’ve been really very lucky. I mean, when I was growing up, I never really witnessed any serious bullying. There’s always going to be some name callings and stuff like that, but it was a very minor, very childish kind of bullying. So I’ve been very lucky that throughout my teenage years, I’ve never really witnessed anything serious.
It wasn’t until the smartphones and social media platforms came about, that I really started seeing a lot of these really brutal videos of kids doing very brutal stuff to each other. And that’s when I got very intrigued as to how these kids are able to do that kind of stuff to each other. So that’s always been something that bothered me in the back of my mind. Then when this when this chance came about, I really wanted to get to know people that have been through that.
So in answering your question, what I wanted to do to make sure that we’re not exploiting the issue, we did a lot of interviews with victims and victimizers of incidents like that. We not only wanted to tell the victim’s story. We wanted to depict why the bullies do what they do as well. So if you watch film, even though it’s limited by of duration, we really tried to tell the story from the bully’s point of view as well. Just to let the audience understand why they would become who they are, their parents values or how that’s brought upon the daughters. How this school enabled that kind of behavior.
So we really wanted to cover the bases, and not just exploit it by being a very violent, or very extremely explicit depiction of bullying. We tried to answer people who wanted to understand why people would bully. But after a lot of research and interviews with people that have been through it, we came to a point where we felt like it’s not something that a film can answer. A film can raise the issue and provide a platform for people to have that dialogue. But I think when it comes down to it, it’s really a question of human nature. Bullying happens across different countries, across different cultures. It exists ever since there were people gathering. So it just really comes down human nature.
So we wanted to cover the bases and so that people can have that dialogue after watching the film. That’s something that I think that we achieved in the end, because after people watched the film in China, we created a website in the format of the test paper that you see, in the film. It’s like an open form essay, with the title of “a letter to yourself in 20 years.” So one of the things that really was heartwarming for me as a filmmaker is seeing a lot of these the fans and audiences going on to the website and sharing their own stories of what they’ve been through. And a lot of the stories that we read were just really heart wrenching.
So it was just a really humbling, very heartwarming experience to be able to make a film and provide that platform for people to have that open conversation.
SS: The film touches on the stresses of the college entrance examination. Has there also been a lot of discussion around that?
DT: In terms of the college examination, that’s something that we really wanted to emphasize in this film. If you’ve been to China, every year around the time of May or June, you can always see it in the news. It’s a huge thing annually for kids that are in that grade and it’s a whole social phenomenon. Parents would bring their kids to the city and they would rent out apartments or a hotel that’s that’s right next to where they have to take the exams, just so that they don’t risk their kids being late to the exams. And then, you see all these kids just really hustling it out and the pressure that they’re going through.
One of the scenes we have in the film is where after you’re done with the exams, a bunch of students would gather their notes, rip them apart, and throw it in the school, making this really beautiful snowfall kind of scene. You can tell that these kids are going through a tremendous amount of pressure. It’s something that is so high pressure and can really make or break a lot of these kids’ future. For a lot of these kids, especially the ones that come from underprivileged backgrounds, this exam can really tremendously change their future, because they can get into a really good university and have a really good job. And that can change their whole family’s outcome.
So a lot of these kids go into these exams with a lot of these pressure on their shoulder. And that’s also one of the reasons why the lead female character Chen Nian can go through all that bullying and taunting without fighting back. She knows she’s shouldering all this pressure not just for herself, but also for mom. So we really wanted to have this exam as the backbone for the whole film, just so that the audience can feel that pressure and sense of hope for the students.
It was really satisfying for me when I see a lot of the Chinese audience commenting after they watched the film. They felt like this is exactly how they felt. And, it’s just so special for me as a filmmaker from Hong Kong because I’ve never been through that examination. It’s just something that I really wanted to depict realistically so the audience who have been through that will say, “Oh, this is how it was like, when we went through that.”
And one other thing that really helped us out a lot in in depicting that atmosphere especially the day after the examination is that we started shooting the film in July 2018. And it was the real date for the exam that year. We went on location to a few of these schools where the kids kids are taking the exams and we just basically camped out there with a with our cameras. And we just shot a lot of footage of how the students were when they were walking into the exams, how the parents were like when you’re waiting for the kids.
That day really was a big inspiration for us. And even though we didn’t really use a lot of the shots in the end, a lot of the elements that we we use in the day of the exams came from what we observed that day.
SS: Better Days is now nominated for an Oscar in such a competitive year. How has your awards season been, especially since the film initially came out 2019?
DT: It’s been a very interesting and honestly very humbling experience. I mean, from the very beginning when we were selected to Berlin but we couldn’t go in the end. And then there was a lot of back and forth with the censorship in China, where we were supposed to be released in June and then got postponed. And then eventually, we finally got the go ahead to be released in October 2019. And that was just before COVID.
Then after COVID, there was the Hong Kong release and then the Hong Kong awards, but they were all virtual. And then we couldn’t go to all the film festivals which were canceled. And then now we’re at Oscars, which is very fortunate that they are actually going to have the award ceremony. It’s just a very humbling and very fascinating journey for us.
One of the things made me most happy is how well the film traveled in different cultures and countries. We really had a good response from audiences when we screened in Italy, when we were released in Korea, and then now in the States. And that’s just something that is very rewarding for me as a filmmaker to have this film travel. It sadly just speaks to how prevalent bullying is across different countries and cultures. And I’m very grateful to to help this film reach the point where it is now. With the Oscar nomination, it is just going to reach a wider audience and that is very satisfying.
Everyone has been telling me this year is a very strong year in terms for foreign film. There were a lot of different selections that reflect on a lot of different issues going on globally. And to be able to be selected in the final five is just very exciting for me. To be honest, I’ve never thought that we would make it into the final five. When we were in the shortlist, I was already jumping around very excited, because we never really thought that we could take it this far.
SS: You mentioned censorship in China. How do you navigate that, especially when dealing with topical issues that may be critical of the government?
DT: With Better Days we’ve been very fortunate. I mean, that’s just the rule of the game when you’re working in China. There’s a set of rules that you have to follow. And every filmmaker has to go through that. It doesn’t matter how big of a name you are, or if you’re a debut film director. And that’s something that you have to respect when you’re working in China. With Better Days, we’ve been very fortunate, even though there was a lot of back and forth with the censors. But they’ve been very helpful. Even though the topic is a bit sensitive, everybody felt like it’s something that we should talk about and something with a positive message. And it’s a film that should be out there and a dialogue that should be out there.
So they were very helpful in terms of how we can make the film work. A lot of people ask me how I work with the censorship. They are people too and they genuinely did care about the film.
SS: You’re also a well established actor. Was it an easy transition to becoming a director?
DT: Actually, the acting thing was a complete accident for me. I never planned to be an actor and I’ve always wanted to become a director. That’s always been my dream and my goal. The whole acting thing really came by accident. I first started off working as a PA and then eventually moved on to scripts for revising continuity, and then as an AD. And it was along the way that it just so happened one day that this director that I knew asked me, “Oh, would you be interested in acting?” He wanted me to take on one of the supporting roles in his film. I was like, wow, this is a rare chance. I’ve never thought that would happen.
So I said yes to that, thinking that it’s just going to be a one off thing. But then it was on to the second role and then the third role and fourth role. And you know, it’s just to my surprise that it was a good part of I would say about 10 years of my career that I just devoted to acting. And it’s been a very rewarding experience and a very important experience for me as a director because it really taught me a lot about how to work with actors. What actors are like when they’re on set, what their worries are, what they what their mind process is when they’re going through a production.
So I think that really helped me a lot in terms of how I work with my actors. I like to think that I’m a director that provides a very safe environment for my actors. I really do take care of my actors really well. I think that really came from my experiences as an actor.
Also, as an actor, you get a lot of time to actually observe how directors work. So you get to you get this chance to work with a lot of really different talented filmmakers. And if you are willing, you can actually sit with the director and see his working process. And and you can always learn from that. It’s a very privileged position to be in. To be able to have a working position in a production, but also have that time to sit beside the director and see how it’s done.
SS: Are you working on any projects we can look forward to?
DT: There’s a lot of different things going on right now. But one project that I am hoping is going to be my next feature is about Southeast Asian refugees in Hong Kong, because for the past 15-20 years, there’s been a great influx of refugees from Southeast Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal. So now the Hong Kong government has this agreement with the UN that we have to accept these refugees.
What was created is this phenomenon where you have these males in their prime 20s to 30s. Southeast Asian males in Hong Kong and they’re stuck here. But the Hong Kong government wouldn’t have allowed them to work and they’re given this really basic subsidy. So you’ve created the situation of these males in their prime, but without any work and dignity. And eventually, a lot of them have to find a way to live. A lot of them ended up working for the triads in Hong Kong. So there’s this whole phenomenon of refugees who are triad gangsters. And for the past six or seven years, there’s been a lot of bad press about these refugees and how they’ve become a gangster problem. And I just really wanted to make a film that tells the story from their point of view.
Better Days is available on digital on demand and Blu-ray.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]