Derek Tsang’s Oscar-Nominated ‘Better Days’ Is A Brutally Honest Story About Bullying


By: Amanda Guarragi

The one thing that we can all agree on is that everyone has had their fair encounters with bullying. No matter how minor the bullying could have been, we can all acknowledge that it exists. People can be cruel, violent, and completely horrible. Bullying, can take many forms and sometimes it is impossible to get out of that position. In Better Days, something that really stood out to me was the line, “Either you bully others or you get bullied.” and no matter your position, there is some form of it every single day. Derek Tsang wanted to address this specific issue for many years and when his producer handed him the novel by Jiu Yuexi’s book ‘In His Youth, In Her Beauty‘, he could finally tell the story through a specific lens.

Tsang wanted to shed light on this issue because it was always a fascinating subject. He addressed social platforms like YouTube and Facebook having multiple videos of young children being bullied. Smartphones have made it very accessible for these traumatic situations to appear on any platform in the matter of minutes. “That is when it really shocked me, as to how these kids can do that sort of stuff to each other. The idea of making a film to personally address the issue has been there since. It has been around for a long time but I was always trying to find an angle to help tell the story.” Tsang said.

What can most definitely be appreciated about this film is Tsang being extremely honest with his audience. He did not shy away from showing the most violent, emotionally damaging and traumatic moments at all. I’m sure everyone will appreciate the fact that Tsang wanted to make it authentic as possible, “I really wanted all of the slaps, punches and hits to be real. So that the audience can really feel the pain.” When directing one of the harsher scenes, Tsang made sure that his lead actress, Dongyu Zhou, who plays Nian, was comfortable with this level of physical contact for the scene, “She was very professional, she said she wanted that as well because she didn’t want it to look fake.” There was a level of trust that was built on this set, among the entire cast and crew because of the story they were bringing to the screen.

What was really interesting to see was the budding relationship between Nian and Bei (Jackson Yee), they started out as a very unlikely pairing, meeting in an alleyway because some men were beating Bei. Nian, who had clearly seen enough bullying/harassment at that point in the film, goes to save him, even if she was manhandled, she wanted to save someone. Nian and Bei lived two very different lives, they are on opposite ends of the spectrum and they slowly become dependent on the other. There is a mutual respect and love for one another, given the cards that they were dealt in life,

“So we told them, not only do you guys have to treat each other like boyfriend and girlfriend, but I want you guys to be family, like a brother and sister, in which you would sacrifice yourself for the other, to survive. So that’s how we really approached that relationship. I mean it was really fascinating to watch the actors slowly getting into that trust and bond as well. We shot everything in linear sequence and it just worked it out perfectly.”

-Derek Tsang, Better Days

The performances from Yee and Zhou were incredible. You could truly see their connection become stronger as the film went on and filming it in linear sequence, presented a different feel to their relationship. Anyone can resonate with this kind of bond. Tsang said, “It was more like two people becoming one entity, in their belief, in their wish, or hope in escaping this situation, or the city itself.” Tsang also shows the class system very well and dives into the hierarchy in the education system as well. There are people who will always have an air of superiority and that is something that can only be dismantled, from within the system, which created that mentality.

When asked about how children can sometimes feel ashamed that they are being bullied, Tsang mentioned that it is a very difficult position to be in. Whether you are the child being bullied, or the authority figure trying to help them. Children do not want to admit that they are being bullied because they do not even know what the consequences could be after reaching out to someone. They live in constant fear of speaking out because they overthink what could possibly happen to them. “Kids in that situation a lot of times, they find themselves very helpless. In a way we kind of wanted to convey that message in the film, that’s why we have the point-of-view of the teacher and the parents.” Tsang said. He explored all avenues and wanted to present a whole piece about those who are suffering from bullying and how to help.

Even though the story was very bleak and poignant, the journey for Tsang and his crew was very memorable. When you bond over a mutual respect for an issue and a love for your craft, that bond is like no other. And Tsang was able to find both throughout his journey. He shared a memory with me,

There is one photo that you could find online, everytime I see that photo it always brings warmth and a smile to my face. There’s a photo of us, it was taken immediately after we shot the scene, when the actor and actress shaved their head. In solidarity, I told my actors, especially my actress because it’s a big thing for an actress to shave her head. So I said, if you’re going to do it, I’ll do it with you guys. I’m going to shave my head and it was just amazing bc not only me but a lot of the crew, we all shaved our head in solidarity with the actors.”

– Derek Tsang, Better Days

In the time they spent together, they became very close and in telling this brutally honest story, it brought them even closer. Better Days is a labor of love and audiences who watch this film will understand the message. Everyone needs a bit more compassion, empathy and most importantly love in their life. For a film to have this much support off-screen, for a serious subject matter like bullying, it can be very rewarding. The importance of addressing these issues authentically will help so many others in the long-run.

cdrama tweets on Twitter: "Director #DerekTsang thanks Weibo Movie Night  for the honor and shares a new BTS pic of #ZhouDongyu, #YiYangQianXi, and  other cast and crew members on the set of #