Over more than four decades, filmmaker Eric Tsang has built a career as both a respected actor and a behind-the-scenes powerhouse. To Hong Kong viewers, he’s best known as a versatile and prolific performer, and a popular TV host. To his peers in the film industry, he’s a dynamo who splits his time between acting, producing and directing, with a special focus on helping young talent. In recognition of his accomplishments, FEFF is presenting Tsang, who has weathered the ups and downs of the film industry, with the Golden Mulberry Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Born in Hong Kong in 1953, Tsang started his working life as a professional footballer. After meeting actor-director Sammo Hung in the early 1970s, he switched to become a movie stuntman, and by 1975, he was working as a stunt leader. In the late 1970s, he started working as an assistant scriptwriter alongside Karl Maka, and later worked on scripts for Hung and actor-director Lau Kar-leung, while also acting in kung fu films. Assistant director duties soon followed, and in 1979 he debuted as director with martial arts film The Challenger.
Tsang joined the brains trust at the Cinema City film company in the early 1980s, partnering with Maka, Raymond Wong, Dean Shek, Teddy Robin, Tsui Hark and Nansun Shi in the firm’s “Gang of Seven”. The early work Chasing Girls (1981) saw Tsang take a major acting role, and the team set about refining film formulas for immense box-office success with hits like the record-breaking crime comedy Aces Go Places (1982), directed by Tsang.
In the mid-1980s, Tsang joined Sammo Hung’s Bo Ho film company to work on both sides of the camera, acting in the popular comedy My Lucky Stars (1985), and planning for the innovative Mr Vampire (1985). Other works in this period included co-directing the big-budget Jackie Chan actioner Armour of God (1986) for the Golden Harvest studio, before co-founding independent production companies Alan and Eric Films, and then Friend Cheers, to take on commercial cinema as well as riskier artistic pictures. Productions included Tsang’s Philippines-set directing effort Fatal Vacation (1990, and Ann Hui’s Zodiac Killers (1991).
Big things were in store for Tsang when he became a founding figure in the United Filmmakers Organization, or UFO, where he largely raised funds, and worked alongside then rising directors like Peter Chan, Lee Chi-ngai, and Jacob Cheung, and producer Claudie Chung. UFO developed a brand of upscale, middle-class cinema with its first 12 films, making much-admired pictures like Chan’s He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (1994), and Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996).
Around 2000, with the film industry in a slump, Tsang entered a new phase in his career. Setting up the production house Anytime, and then Black and White Films, he looked to boosting emerging talent and supporting daring works. Tsang presented veteran director Patrick Tam’s bold Malaysia-set comeback After This Our Exile (2007), and also pushed ahead with helping young directors. Among those with work produced or presented by Tsang were Pang Ho-cheung (Men Suddenly in Black, 2003), Adam Wong (When Beckham Met Owen, 2004; Magic Boy, 2007), Wong Ching-po (Jiang Hu, 2004), Derek Kwok (The Pye-Dog, 2007) and Heiward Mak (High Noon, 2008). These efforts extended to mainland China and Taiwan, too, notably with Tom Lin’s Winds of September (Taiwan, 2008).
In recent years, Tsang’s role as producer saw him revisit Lunar New Year family cinema, with films like 72 Tenants of Prosperity (2010, also actor and co-director) and I Love Hong Kong 2011 (also actor and director), but efforts with new and emerging talent haven’t stopped. Last year’s Good Take! omnibus films saw Tsang produce works by young filmmakers, among them Heiward Mak and Henri Wong. Tsang’s talented son Derek Tsang, whose film career has spanned acting, writing, directing and more, was also among the Good Take! directors. (Tsang’s daughter Bowie has also developed a pop-culture career, as a singer, TV host, writer and producer in Taiwan.)
Tsang has impressed as an actor throughout his career. A lead role in Patrick Tam’s Final Victory (1987), which showcased his range of comic and dramatic acting talents, is a highlight of his 200-plus acting credits. His acclaimed performance in Peter Chan’s sentimental Alan & Eric – Between Hello and Goodbye (1991), won him a Hong Kong Film Award for best actor. Another HKFA trophy followed when Tsang’s gangster part in Chan’s drama Comrades, Almost a Love Story won him best supporting actor. His standout role as a triad boss in Infernal Affairs (2002), which screens this year in Udine, reached a wide international audience. Acting roles in the 2000s have been hugely diverse, with films ranging from trashy comedies and small-time triad stories, to high-quality dramas and blockbuster fantasy comedies.
Tsang’s achievements were celebrated in 2008 by the Hong Kong International Film Festival, which ran a retrospective of his work, and published a book about it. In the same year, Tsang received Hong Kong’s Medal of Honour for his contributions to the film industry.
Tsang has been in the spotlight in 2017 with several new pictures. He had a cameo appearance in Stanley Tong’s blockbuster Kung Fu Yoga, appearing alongside Jackie Chan, and acted in Chen Yu-hsun’s Taiwanese film The Village of No Return. A role as a cop saw him join the work of new directors Yan Pak-wing and Chiu Sin-hang in the horror comedy Vampire Cleanup Department. At the end of March, Hong Kong moviegoers saw him make an exceptional performance in the acclaimed drama Mad World when it received a full cinema release. Directed by Wong Chun, another director in the Good Take! project, Mad World saw Tsang play the father of a young man suffering from bipolar disorder. By performing without pay in this low-budget work, Tsang once more demonstrated his support for new talent, and his desire to push Hong Kong cinema forward.