“Better Days” is Hong Kong’s first Oscar submission to be nominated for best international feature film since 1993, but its nod has only inflamed political tensions at home. Many members of the Hong Kong public believe that “Better Days” does not represent them.
Although it was directed by Hong Kong’s Derek Tsang, produced by Jojo Yuet-chun Hui, and counts Hong Konger Lam Wing Sum among its three main screenwriters, “Better Days” features over a hundred Chinese cast members and one Thai, but no Hong Kong actors. It also unfolds in Mandarin, not Cantonese. Adapted from an eponymous Chinese novel, it is set in China’s Chongqing. Its examination of schoolyard bullying is set against the backdrop of the “gaokao,” the mainland’s brutal college entrance examination that doesn’t exist in Hong Kong.
“Even if ‘Better Days’ wins, I won’t feel much… it’s too far removed from the people of Hong Kong. The rules may say it can represent Hong Kong, but whether it wins people’s hearts is another matter,” said novelist Phillip Pang. “For me, Hong Kong movies don’t necessarily have to take place in Hong Kong, but they should tell stories about Hong Kong people. We would rather lose [the nomination] but have foreign audiences be more aware of films like that.”
On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the Chinese government has publicly expressed its displeasure at the Academy for the nomination of Norwegian director Anders Hammer’s “Do Not Split” — a chronicle of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests — in the best documentary short category. Not long after Beijing ordered its media to downplay the event and delay live coverage of the ceremony, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster TVB declared that for the first time since 1969 it would not be airing the Oscars at all.
“Better Days” is dark and controversial enough that Chinese censors abruptly pulled it from its planned 2019 Berlin premiere. But edits required ahead of its November 2019 theatrical debut cut some of its violence and added uplifting propaganda content at the beginning and end praising the Chinese government’s response to the issues raised — further alienating Hong Kong viewers.
From its first censorship approval at script stage to its last just before its release, “Better Days” was registered with China’s film administration as a domestic production, not a Hong Kong co-production. Netflix categorizes it as a Chinese rather than Hong Kong movie.
Nevertheless, the film adhered to the rules of what constitutes a co-production enough to to qualify for the Hong Kong Film Awards, where it swept up eight top prizes (before later leading China’s Communist Party-run Golden Rooster Awards with 11 nominations and two wins).
Co-productions are defined by the 2003 Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) between China and Hong Kong. It decrees that films with plots or lead characters with ties to China that also employ Chinese nationals in at least a third of its top creative positions can qualify as local mainland movies, avoiding to import quotas and less favorable profit breakdowns. There are no requirements, however, for a minimum percentage of Hong Kong creative participation.
It thus appears possible that “Better Days” adheres to local co-production rules but not the Academy’s own, which stipulate that “creative control of the film is largely in the hands of citizens or residents of that country.”
The Academy’s interpretation of that clause disqualified Belarus’ submission “Persian Lessons” this year on the grounds that the Russian-Belarusian-German co-production was not Belarusian enough, potentially in part because it unfolds in German.
The Academy also rejected China’s 2015 submission of “Wolf Totem” because too many of its leading creatives were non-Chinese. In 2007, the body controversially disqualified Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” from Taiwan on similar grounds. The Academy’s executive director Bruce Davis explained that although the film’s writer, director and producer were Taiwanese, it couldn’t make the cut with no Taiwanese principal cast or heads of key departments like cinematography.
Since the same appears to hold true of “Better Days,” some wondered if perhaps the Academy was unable to tell credited Hong Kong and Chinese creatives apart, lumping together cast and crew from the two regions. “Maybe they felt it was just a bunch of names that look the same,” speculated director Derek Chiu Sung-Kee (“No. 1 Chung Ying Street”).
The Academy declined to reply to requests for clarification on how it determined that “Better Days” fit selection criteria, referring instead back to its own public qualification rules.
The CEPA co-production rules have become more controversial as China’s film industry threatens to envelop Hong Kong’s, and the territory’s political relationship with Beijing becomes increasingly tense.
In the wake of the draconian National Security Law (NSL) imposed by Beijing on the territory last summer, the question of what will continue to make Hong Kong distinct from China looms ever larger. The U.S. government itself has already revoked the territory’s special status, deciding to treat it the same as mainland China.
Many are now wondering if or when the Academy should do the same.
Each year, Hong Kong’s nomination is selected by its Motion Picture Industry Association (MPIA), led by local industry members with strong business ties with China.
Last summer, its chairman Crucindo Hung told the press: “Members of the MPIA and I fully support Hong Kong’s NSL; the sooner it is implemented, the better.” Its leadership also includes players like veteran producer Charles Heung, another NSL supporter who serves as its life honorable president, vice chairman and board member. Taiwan recently denied Heung and his son visas to live there, citing national security concerns.
Many Hong Kongers worry that the MPIA is biased towards mainland and commercial rather than local artistic films, and complain that their decision-making process is not transparent.
“These are people who already see films as a commodity more than art, and are looking out for their business prospects,” assessed Chiu. “They definitely have political censorship in mind, and will be thinking about what kind of response their selection will get from the mainland.”
The MPIA did not respond to Variety’s request for comment.
In the 62 years since Hong Kong began submitting to the Oscars, 20 of the 39 films selected were mostly or entirely in Mandarin. Only two were ever officially nominated, both China-set films by mainland directors: Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern” in 1991, and Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine” in 1993. (The latter starred Hong Kong’s Leslie Cheung, perhaps making it slightly more representative of the city.)
In 2018, the association submitted the patriotic Chinese war film “Operation Red Sea” from Hong Kong director Dante Lam as its Oscars bid, but there was less backlash than this year.
“Hong Kongers didn’t care so much before about the submission because they felt it would never make the cut anyway,” said Enoch Tam, editor-in-chief of the local film website Cinezen. “This year is very different: not only did the submission make it to competition and get the chance to actually win, but the current tension between China and Hong Kong makes it more problematic that the social issues represented by [‘Better Days’] have nothing to do with what Hong Kong local people are facing or thinking about.”
The MPIA’s selections are not always so pro-Beijing. In 2017, for instance, it selected “Mad World,” a very local, socially conscious film about a lower class Hong Kong family with a strong local reputation and box office.
Brian Hu of San Diego State University called the selection of “Better Days” a “daring choice,” since it declares, in a way, that Hong Kong-ness is defined by authorship. “To me, the choice is interesting because it says that someone who grew up in Hong Kong is different and has a distinct worldview from someone who grew up in China — that a Hong Kong film is decided by who made it, rather than where it’s set,” he said.
In this context, the 2021 Academy Awards have become a sort of referendum on Hong Kong identity — of what Hong Kong or “Hong Kong cinema” even means anymore, and who gets to decide.
“In all my years, I’ve never until now seen Hong Kong people give such weight to the idea of a unique, distinct Hong Kong culture or so emphasize the ‘Hong Kong’ label,” assessed 60-year-old Chiu. “The standard for what counts as Hong Kong cinema can’t just be the percentage of its crew — it should be determined by cultural representation.”