Why Derek Tsang Made ‘Better Days,’ His Film That’s Already Made Oscar History

The Hong Kong film director has made Oscars history, but the intentions behind his film were to raise awareness for bullying.

Director Derek Tsang arrives at the red carpet of the 4th International Film Festival & Awards in Macao, China. VCG via Getty Images

With his Hong Kong crime drama Better Days up for Best International Feature Film at tonight’s 93rd Academy Awards, veteran actor and director Derek Tsang Kwok-Cheung aka Derek Tsang, has already made history as the first native Hong Kong director in the category.

At times difficult to watch, but nonetheless necessary and inspiring, Better Days explores the ways bullying causes psychological and physical trauma to teenagers, and the ways society fails victims. Struggling under the weight placed on her by teachers and her mother to pass the impending college entrance exams, and need to escape the relentless bullying from classmates, high-school senior Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) does her best to make it through each day. Seeing her admission to college as the only way out from the city she feels trapped in, Chen Nian tries to keep her head down and focus on her studies, until one night she happens upon Xiaobei |(Jackson Yee), a street thug who ends up being her closest ally and protector.

Written by Lam Wing Sum, Li Yuan and Xu Yimeng and based on the book In His Youth,  In Her Beauty by Jiu Yuxei, the film is vital not only for the performance by it’s two main leads, and the achingly beautiful way their characters grow to care for each other but also the way Tsang and the writers exposes how brutal bullying is and the consequences that can occur when adults look the other way or get fail to realize the severity of the situations until it’s too late.

In an email interview, Tsang shared how he, the cast and writers prepared for and shot the intensely violent scenes, how bullying and trauma can change a person’s perception of their childhood as adults and the importance of a film dealing with a very specific subject matter winning multiple awards.

Observer: Better Days opens with Chen Nian teaching an ESL class on the differences between the words was” and used to be.” In her definition, used to be” represents a sense of loss to the subject its applied to, a playground in this case, signifying theres an emotional connection. For most of the films viewers, the word playground” itself evokes memories of happy childhood moments, but by the end of the film the context changes completely with the knowledge of what a playground means to the characters.

In using this scene to bookend the film, would it be fair to assume it was your intention as the director and that of the writers to show how bullying destroys the connections Chen Nian and Liu Beishan — and victims of it in real life — to what would be seen as symbols of happy childhoods, and a carefree youth?

Derek Tsang: That was definitely one of the intentions. By employing the present and past tense grammar lesson with the students in the film, we also wanted to convey a sense of loss of innocence, something that we all yearn for but is forever lost. Not only to the victims or victimizers, but also to all of us who are in one way or other bystanders of these vicious behaviors.

Most of the punches, kicks, and slaps you see onscreen are real, they are not choreographed or angled. We all agreed that the film needed that rawness and impact in order to engage the audiences and let them feel Chen Nian’s and Xiaobei’s pain.

How did it affect or influence the way you crafted the story, and were there any scenes in particular that connected to Chen Nians lesson directly? For me, the playground Chen Nian references are the streets of Hong Kong which she and Liu Beishan (aka Xiaobei) traveled at night and in the early predawn. They were only ever truly carefree when they were together, and away from others, which isnt what most people associate would think of, as theyd associate a playground with things like jungle gyms, swings or playing fields. Not motorcycles and highways.

The opening scene didn’t affect or influence our way to craft the story because it was never intended to bookend the film. It was originally written as an epilogue in the script. During post, we had a test screening of an early cut with some of our friends and colleagues. Some commented on how they had difficulty sinking into the film in the beginning, so we went back to the editing room to try out a few things. Cutting the epilogue scene in half and opening the film with the first half of it turned out to be really interesting. The scene became this metaphorical lead-in to all the things that will happen, and the audience is much more engaged from the beginning.

Better Days is an extremely straightforward look at how brutal teenage bullying can be, and the deadly consequences of it when ignored. When collaborating with the film’s writers Lam Wing Sum, Li Yuan and Xu Yimeng, was there any discussion about how the violence would be portrayed on screen, especially with the scenes involving Chen Nian?

I was very clear with my writers from the beginning that I wanted the film to be as raw and powerful as possible. We agreed that we shouldn’t shy away from depicting the brutalities that can arise in those kinds of situations, so we worked very hard in plotting out the escalation of the violence that Chen Nian would face, from the not-so-serious taunting to the full-blown vicious attack she endured in one of the climaxes of the film. For that particular scene, where Chen Nian is brutally beaten and had her hair cut off and clothes torn to shreds — all the while being recorded on cell phone cameras by the bullies — I really wanted the scene to look and feel like the kind of heart-wrenching videos one can sadly find online with ease.

The films shows two types of bullies, those at the school Chen Nian attends, and the street gangs Xiobei encounters. One group consists mainly of girls and the other boys, but both are equally vicious, and the way they enact sexual violence on both Xiaobei (him being forced to receive a kiss Chen Nian was threatened to make, in my opinion, is also sexual assault), and Chen Nian, but Chen Nian in particular with the kiss, and being stripped and having naked pictures of her posted on the internet. Was the sexual aspect discussed prior to production or came through during filming, and how was it discussed with actress Zhou Dongyu, as her character suffered the most from this?

We tried to cover as many types of bullying as we could in the film. Be it psychological, physical, sexual or online bullying, we really wanted to show the audiences different types of manifestations. Therefore, the sexual element was always there from the beginning. When the victim is female, some degree of sexual violence is sadly always part of the equation. That’s something we see again and again in our research, and we wanted to reflect that in the film. Dongyu knew from the beginning that some of the attacks she would face during filming would have some sort of sexual aspect to it, and she agreed that it was essential to include that kind of gender dynamic in the story.

Xiaobei (Jackson Yee) and Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) in Better Days. Well Go USA

How were the concerns regarding the violence (if there were any) applied to your approach in the direction of the film overall, but specifically Dongyu, Jackson and the actors and actresses playing the roles of the bullies?

As with the writers, I told all the actors and actresses from the very beginning that I want our film to realistically reflect the violence that can occur in these kinds of situations. Particularly with Dongyu, since she is the one who would have to endure most of the physical hardship during the shoot. Most of the punches, kicks, and slaps you see onscreen are real, they are not choreographed or angled. We all agreed that the film needed that rawness and impact in order to engage the audiences and let them feel Chen Nian’s and Xiaobei’s pain. I was very fortunate in that none of the actors needed persuading to take on the physical demands asked of them.

Stylistically the film has an almost wistful feeling when it focuses on the scenes with just Xiao Bei and Chen Nian, which is contrasted with an almost cold and apprehensive feel one gets as the viewer during the bullying scenes, and those with the cops in the third act. Could you describe how you designed the atmosphere both visually and thematically with your cinematographers, composer and production designer?

Choosing the city in which to shoot the film was one of the earliest decisions we made about the look and atmosphere of the film. We shot the film in Chongqing, which is a hilly and bustling city with lots of bridges, overpasses, stairs and twisted alleyways that makes it feels very much like a labyrinth. We felt that it was a very appropriate choice for the film as we wanted to create this sense of entrapment the protagonists find themselves in. The city provided both a physical and psychological trap the characters are trying to escape from.

For cinematography, Fisher (our cinematographer) and I agreed quickly on how we wanted to shoot the film. We want it to be all hand-held, with a lot of camera movement with the actors in long takes. We hoped to be able to capture the raw energy of the actors and the scenes. Another thing we liked was shooting a lot of extreme close-ups. We felt that was the best way to capture the actors’ nuanced performances and also the youthfulness of the students in the film.

Regarding the importance of the sets, the two that stand out the most to me are Xiao Bei’s home and the school where he and Chen Nian have their final encounter before their arrests. From the outside, Xiao Bei’s hut doesn’t look like much. It’s small and surrounded by vines close to a highway overpass. But on the inside, he’s made it a home with the necessities, a fridge, fan, kettle and even a fish tank that he obviously takes care of as the water is clean and the fish swim around. Here with Xiao Bei is where Chen Nian feels the safest, and where he does too as its in their quiet moments together, he opens up about his past and confesses about his pain, both physically and emotionally.

The school is dilapidated. The walks and stage where graduations were held are falling apart and the ground is covered in moldy dusty ceiling insulation, which I saw as being a juxtaposition of the thousands of sheets of paper filled with notes and homework the students threw out on the last day of school. How important was it to you get the detailing of these two locations right and the process of telling the story of these characters and the film, through them?

Xiaobei’s home had been a huge challenge for us. Yes, we wanted it to be a safe haven for both Chen Nian and Xiaobei, but realistically it was very difficult to find a location that we felt was both reflective of Xiaobei’s living standard and able to provide a sense of protection and warmth to both the characters. In the end, we decided to build the structure ourselves, so we found this area that is kind of hidden away from the bustle with a lot of open view, and built the derelict structure ourselves. The open view and the greenery were essential, as we wanted it to contrast with the concrete jungle they were always navigating in.

With the school, we really were just going for a realistic depiction. It wasn’t really dilapidation we were after, but commonality. We wanted to find a school that can be readily found in any third- or fourth-tier cities in China.

Bullying occurs in every country, but it seems that no matter the society, there seems to be a specific culture of bullying in how it manifests and is handled or not but the adults surrounding these events, and Better Days does a brilliant job of not downplaying or making vague inferences to this. The way the adults — teachers, parents, school administrators and police — ignored the issues until it was too late, laid the responsibility of stopping it on the children and victims, and the way the bullies know who to target. Can you share how much research went into this, and on instances of bullying in other cities apart from Hong Kong? Were there any interviews with victims of bullying, and perhaps the real Chen Nian as the end of the film implies her story is based on real events?

Initially when we set out to write the script, I was naive enough to hope to be able to address the question as to why people bully. However, once we started the research and writing, it became obvious that it would be impossible to provide an answer to that question. Because, like you said, bullying occurs across all different countries, cultures and time. Whenever there are social gatherings, some form of bullying will occur in one way or another. It is a question of human nature and power dynamics. In light of that, the best our film could do is to try to cover as many angles as we could in depicting what enables these situations, so it followed that we also tried to include the roles of the adults in the film. One of the most important points we wanted to stress is the role of the parents. Parents are without a doubt the most influential role models for their kids. Your kids’ behavior will always reflect your norms and values. When you as a person have little compassion or empathy for others, so will your kids. That’s why we had the scene in which the police meet with the mother of the bully to try to understand the situation only to be told off and have the blame totally turned back on the victim and the teachers. It is a very good example of twisted values being passed on to the next generation, and that is something we came across quite often in our research.

However, I don’t think all the adults in the film were ignorant of the issue. On the contrary, we wanted to convey the sense of helplessness some caring adults could face in bullying situations. Both the teacher and especially the policeman wanted to help, but it just proved very difficult when there is so much mistrust between the kids and the adults. Ultimately, we as adults have to bear the responsibility whenever we see incidents of bullying. We have to ask ourselves what kind of world or society we created for our young ones to grow up in and have so little compassion for one another.

There’s a montage in the second act that really stood out to me in the way it shows the contradictions and hypocrisy in how children and teenagers are expected to be perfect students who study diligently to become law abiding adults, who contribute to society and honor their parents, but are offered no support or defense as victims like Chen Nian and Xiaobei. Can you speak to how this applies to Hong Kong and to a broader extent Asian cultures? (Though it applies to every country, because we’re all pressured to be good students at all levels of education, as well as conform to behaviors in workplaces, where bullying is also quite common.)

Asian cultures, without generalizing or overlooking the differences between the many different countries, put a lot of pressure on youths to conform to societal norms. Asian parents and teachers are still infamous in their expectations of kids to perform well in school and behave properly. Those who are outliers or stray from the “correct” path are always shown much less empathy.

Being a native of Hong Kong, can you share your opinion on how bullying is dealt with culturally, and how they influenced you in your decision to make this film?

I’m not sure if there are a lot of differences in ways of dealing with bullying across different cultures. In research and literature we came across, the recommendations and steps taken to resolve the situations are all pretty similar. However, I do think the willingness to acknowledge and accept cases of bullying may vary across different cultures. I have no data or hard evidence to back this, but being a Chinese myself, I think Chinese or Asian parents and teachers in general may be less inclined to acknowledge or discuss matters of distress out in the open.

Once you had made the decision to take on this project, were there any concerns you had in how the subject matter and the film would be received?

To be honest, we didn’t spend much time being concerned about how the film would be received. Of course we wanted the audience to like our film, but our main concern was to wholeheartedly make the best of the material because we really believed in the subject matter and the need to provide a platform for people to have a dialogue about bullying.

What was the general reception to Better Days from audiences and perhaps policy makers and school administrators?

I can’t speak for policy makers and school admins, but the general reception to Better Days from audiences has been really great. As a filmmaker, I’m very grateful for the film to be able to “travel” so well, as it did really well across different festivals and worldwide distributions. I’m super excited for the film to be able to do so well in different countries, but at the same time, you know it is because of how prevalent the issue of bullying really is, so it’s a conflicting feeling.

You’ve made history as the first Hong Kong native and director whose work has been nominated in the Best International Film category at the Academy Awards. How does that feel not only for the Oscars, but the other awards you won at home, such as the Far East Film Festival and the 39th Hong Kong Film Awards where it won in multiple categories? What importance do you ascribe to your nominations as a director, but also to this particular film, which focuses on a very serious subject matter, being recognized? 

First and foremost, I’m very honored to be nominated in the Oscars. I mean we all grew up watching the Academy Awards and know that it is one of the highest honors one can receive as a filmmaker. I’m just very grateful for all the chances and help I got along the way to have the film be released and loved by so many. I certainly hope that our nomination will inspire more young filmmakers to pursue their dreams. All in all, from conceiving the film to the Oscars nomination, it’s been a crazy rollercoaster ride. It’s both very rewarding and humbling at the same time, and I’m thankful for everyone who has been with us on this journey.

Better Days is streaming on Hulu.

Golden Years is Observer’s clear-eyed coverage of the awards horserace. Why Derek Tsang Made ‘Better Days,’ His Film That’s Already Made Oscar History