Derek Tsang is the director of the Academy Award-nominated Better Days (2019), an unflinching teen drama, showing as part of our Hong Kong New Talents program. The team at the Hong Kong International Film Festival spoke to him about making the film, becoming a director, and the future of Hong Kong filmmaking.
Derek Tsang graduated from the University of Toronto and worked in film production at Applause Pictures after returning to Hong Kong. He began acting in films in 2001. In 2010, he co-directed Lover's Discourse with Jimmy Wan. The two female leads in his first solo directorial effort, Soul Mate (2016), won the Best Actress prize for both lead actresses at the Golden Horse Awards. His latest directorial effort, Better Days (2019), won eight prizes at the Hong Kong Film Awards and was nominated for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards.
Hong Kong International Film Festival: You started your career on film sets in different positions before making short films and co-directing feature films. Now you have made your own feature films. Did you realise your goal step-by-step?
Derek Tsang: Absolutely, though I took many unplanned detours in the process. I had never planned to be an actor. When I finished my studies and came back to Hong Kong, I wanted to work in production. I was very lucky to join Peter Ho-sun Chan's company and became a production assistant, taking on any errand that needed to be done. I organised food takeout, photocopying and delivered film prints. When there was a production, I worked as script supervisor. My goal from the beginning was to be a director, so I began from the most basic position in a film crew. After that, I began to work in post-production, publicity, distribution; I helped in any way I could. It is not a large company, so I had to work in different departments. This was very good training. By and by, I became a second assistant director.
To other people, I am the son of a celebrity, so it was a gimmick to cast me. When asked if I was interested in acting, I took it thinking that it was a valuable opportunity. It was meant to be a one-time occurrence, but I was fortunate to have other directors asking me if I would like to continue acting. So that was a phase of working both in front and behind the camera. Later on, I left Peter's company and worked as an actor for a long time, while writing my own scripts and scripts for others. After meeting director Pang Ho-cheung, I collaborated with him for quite some time. I acted in his films and took part in brainstorming and scriptwriting. I set a goal for myself to direct my first film before turning 30. So I turned down many acting offers between 2007 and 2008 in order to focus on the script for my first film. At the end of 2009, I made Lover's Discourse.
HKIFF: After filming Lover's Discourse in Hong Kong, you made films in other Chinese-speaking regions. What were the difficulties of making films in those places?
DT: The biggest difficulty is that if you are making a story in mainland China or Taiwan, you are telling the stories of people living there. So the first difficulty is to integrate into their cultures, roles and stories. You will really need to be completely immersed there to tell their stories, or there would be a huge cultural gap and your way of expression won't be "acclimatised". This is most time consuming. It demands your heart to voluntarily integrate. I am very willing to do that. I was born in Hong Kong, then I lived in Canada before coming back, so I have been in a constant state of flux. I hope that in the future, regardless of where I'm making a film, I will carry the mentality of being open to understanding everything happening in that region, the values of the people there, and tell stories that are close to them.
HKIFF: In recent years, many new directors came from film academies rather than on-the-job training. Do you think this is an issue?
DT: I don't think this is a problem. The apprenticeship system was still mandatory when I first entered the profession. To be a director, you had to start as an assistant director. You can only direct a film when you have accumulated enough experience. But looking at other parts of the world, a lot of master filmmakers began without any filmmaking experience. Look at Quentin Tarantino: he worked in a video store, watched many movies and started writing his own scripts before he became a director. Of course, it's an advantage for a filmmaker and a producer if you have experience in filmmaking because there are a lot of things you can learn on location. They can be great references for you when you are making your own film. Some new directors may not have spent much time on a film set, but they have experience as a screenwriter or in other positions for one or two films. That does count as on-the-job experience. To have experience is good, but I don't think that it is a must.
HKIFF: Representing Hong Kong, Better Days was nominated for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards. What insights did that experience give you?
DT: The biggest insight for me, which was something that we had always wanted to do, was to make something on a local subject matter that is also universal. I understand that right now, everyone is going local in mainland China, Hong Kong and everywhere else. Everyone wants to tell local-oriented stories about their own places. But even so, the films' values can still be relatable to a global audience instead of only a local audience. This is a belief that is needed when you create: A film is not made only for your own people, but for everyone in the world. It should strike a chord universally. I think this is very important. When I was making Better Days, I wasn't very conscious of this. But for me and [producer] Jojo, our core value as filmmakers is to always make something for the widest possible spectrum of audiences.
HKIFF: What is your next step?
DT: It is such a blessing to make films in different places. If such an opportunity arises, I would very much like to try it out. Right now, I am working hard to discover stories and new collaborative partners. There are now a lot of online platforms and many possibilities in storytelling formats. Feature films aren't the only thing I can do; there are also series, miniseries or films for other platforms.
HKIFF: How can new directors in Hong Kong find opportunities in filmmaking? They may be able to obtain funding for their first film, but how about their second and their third films?
DT: I think new directors are given more opportunities than before, but the big picture is not rosy. We can all see that Hong Kong films are plunging in numbers and box office sales. I feel that it would be difficult to change the overall condition, and we have to accept that the Hong Kong film industry has been reduced to what it is now. The only thing that can be done is to see how one can operate in this market situation. For example, they can make films that do not require high budgets. If a film needs a big budget, it will have to be a co-production and align with mainland China in terms of production and narrative. This is a choice that has to be made. Or perhaps one can simply go to the mainland and make big-budget productions. This is the decision of individual directors. For me, filming in mainland China is full of excitement. There are many possibilities in geographic locations, types of people and subject matters for a Hong Kong director to explore in the mainland if one is willing to do it. At the same time, there are also directors who only want to make Hong Kong films. That is a personal choice. If one stays in Hong Kong, the issue one has to face is the budgetary constraint. If you would like to tell a local story that does not require a high budget, I think that's fine. Hong Kong cinema will survive. It will continue to produce films. Where there are people, there are stories. I don't believe that Hong Kong cinema is dead. The number of films have become fewer, but Hong Kong cinema won't disappear.
I feel that the situation is not as pessimistic as everyone thinks. There are still many films pending to be released. It's just that they're waiting for the right time due to the pandemic. In fact, there are quite a few films that I am really looking forward to. I believe that there will always be good films being made.
Reprinted by kind permission of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society.