Better Days director hopes Oscar-nominated film inspires Chinese to tackle hard topics

HONG KONG – Better Days director Derek Tsang said his Oscar-nominated film could inspire other Chinese artists to pursue difficult topics despite the challenges in getting works past censors in China.

Adapted from Jiu Yuexi’s novel Young And Beautiful, the movie tells the story of a bullied schoolgirl (Zhou Dongyu) who develops a strong bond with a boy (Jackson Yee) when they get caught up in a murder case.

The romantic crime film, shot in mainland China and the first by a Hong Kong-born director to receive an Oscar nomination, is shortlisted in the best international feature film category.

Hong Kong TV audiences won’t be able to watch a win in real time though, because free-to-air broadcaster TVB won’t air the Academy Awards for the first time in more than 50 years. 

TVB, which has broadcast the Oscars every year since 1969, said it won’t carry the ceremony this year for “commercial reasons”.

'Tsang, the 41-year-old son of veteran actor Eric Tsang, believes censors gave his movie the green light “because everyone thinks the film carries a very positive message and (bullying is) something that needs to be discussed”, he said.

Artistic freedoms have narrowed in recent years in China, where authorities can be uncomfortable with topics that portray aspects of society as less than harmonious.

While there was no “clear path” on how to pass censorship requirements, it was important for filmmakers and other artists to pursue subjects they believed in, Tsang said.

“Passion will carry you a very long distance,” he said.

“One of the most encouraging comments that I’ve heard from fellow filmmakers is... (that) our film inspired them... that we try to tackle something that’s difficult instead of choosing an easier path.” 

Better Days, released in October 2019 in China and a month later in the US and other countries, has so far grossed over US$200 million (S$268m) at the box office worldwide.

The decision not to air the Oscars has stoked concerns about dwindling freedoms in Hong Kong, which has taken an authoritarian path since China imposed a sweeping national security law last year in response to the financial hub’s pro-democracy protests of 2019.

Tsang said he was “disappointed” the Oscars would not be broadcast in Hong Kong, but “guessed” the decision was made due to coronavirus-related fears that the show might go virtual or even be cancelled.

China won’t carry the Oscars this year either, with nationalists criticising Chinese-born director Chloe Zhao, whose Nomadland earned several nominations and won best film at Britain’s Bafta awards.

Zhao has insulted China in comments in the past, posters on Chinese social media have said.

Another sensitive nomination for China is Norwegian director Anders Hammer’s short documentary Do Not Split, about Hong Kong’s 2019 protests.

In signs of a tougher environment this year for film and other work, Hong Kong cinemas pulled protest documentary Inside the Red Brick Wall by anonymous local filmmakers, a university cancelled a press photography exhibition, and a soon-to-open contemporary art museum said it will allow the police’s new national security unit to vet its collections.

Hong Kong authorities say the former British colony’s rights and freedoms are intact and it retains a high degree of autonomy from Beijing, but that China’s national security is a red line.

The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Oscars and the concerns about artistic freedoms.

Asked about the impact of what many say is a rapidly shrinking space for dissent on Hong Kong’s once-vaunted film industry, Tsang said artists still have plenty of stories to tell and he was optimistic about the industry’s future.

One of his next projects will focus on the plight of refugees from across South Asia in Hong Kong, who face discrimination, housing problems and bureaucratic hurdles preventing many from pulling themselves out of poverty.

“As long as there are people in Hong Kong, there are going to be good stories,” Tsang said.

“I don’t believe one bit that Hong Kong cinema is dead.” - REUTERS