With prolific actor-director-producer Eric Tsang Chi-wai as his father, Derek Tsang Kwok-cheung is no stranger to the Hong Kong film industry. The young Tsang is not only equally versatile (more than 30 movie roles along with directing, scriptwriting and editing credits), he is also familiar with the world of triads.
In his reel life, the 33-year-old has had supporting roles in several triad movies. In Herman Yau Lai-to's On the Edge (2006), he portrayed the triad buddy of a police mole played by Nick Cheung Ka-fai, and in Lawrence Lau Kwok-cheung's Tactical Unit: No Way Out (2008), he played a young man who has regular run-ins with triads along with the cops. More recently, in Felix Chong Man-kee's satirical Once a Gangster (2010), Tsang played the younger incarnation of an ageing triad assayed by Jordan Chan Siu-chun.
This year, Tsang has a starring role in the upcoming Triad, Daniel Chan Yee-heng's crime drama revolving around three friends (played by Tsang, William Chan Wai-ting and Edward Chui Wai-tung) who join the underground society in their youth.
The film was originally titled Hung Kwan Cho Hai Pak Tsz Sin in Cantonese to reflect the titles bestowed on the trio - Hung Kwan (Red Pole, the muscle), Cho Hai (Straw Sandals, the runner and connections man) and Pak Tsz Sin (White Paper Fan, the strategist) - and follows their rise through the crime syndicate, which is headed by triad movie veteran Michael Chan Wai-man. With a story that spans several years, Triad opens with a 2003 funeral, then quickly flashes back to 1997 and a defining incident at Mong Kok's Ladies Market, before returning to 2003 and moving on to 2006 and beyond.
Although it has a contemporary visual style, this triad genre reboot harks back to the likes of Andrew Lau Wai-keung's seminal Young and Dangerous series in the 1990s about goo wak jai (triad rascals) willing to lay down their lives for their "brothers". Its storyline about people vying to head the organisation recalls Johnnie To Kei-fung's dark Election (2005) and the bloody Election 2 (2006).
It's no secret that production companies often brush up against triads during filming. While on location for Triad, the cast and crew encountered some real-life triad members. "It's just that some people were trying to make a couple of bucks … they came and declared this [was] their turf, so you've got to have their consent to shoot here, if not pay up - that sort of thing," Tsang says.
They were largely unfazed by these demands. Such a situation is usually resolved by someone knowing someone who can obtain permission from the triad leader, the dai lo (big brother).
It's helpful to know such underworld figures, Tsang says matter of factly. With genre movies such as Triad, they can provide some insight when screenwriters are developing the script. "You throw them some ideas about your film and get their feedback to see if this is possible or not. Is it unrealistic in the triad world?"
In Triad, Tsang's character rises to a high-ranking position in the crime world with the help of a benevolent dai lo portrayed by Patrick Tam Yiu-ming. His character also has a strong bond with the film's protagonist played by William Chan, another case of art imitating life: Tsang and Chan are good friends away from the set.
And it's his friendship with William Chan and the film's director Daniel Chan that Tsang credits for getting him involved with this latest entry in a long-standing local cinema genre whose illustrious representatives includes Tsang's personal favourite, Wong Kar-wai's As Tears Go By (1988).
"Last year Daniel told me that he secured funding for the film, and he was going to have William in the lead role," Tsang says. He also learned the two men - who are not related - wanted him for Triad.
Up until then, Tsang - who has writing credits for Pang Ho-cheung's Isabella (2006) and Dream Home (2010), and his directorial debut, Lover's Discourse (2010) - had been helping Daniel Chan to develop scripts. "I was pretty much co-writing it with him," Tsang says. "But that was a completely different draft from what it is now. Something happened along the way, he had to change it completely. And the moment I knew he was going to get me on board as an actor, I stopped [co-writing the script] immediately."
Eight people, excluding Tsang, share the script credit for Triad.
Ahead of Triad's release, Tsang hopes the film will resonate with local audiences because it was made with them in mind. He believes local films are getting the support of Hong Kong audiences once again - and for the sake of local filmmakers, one has to hope that he is right.
Triad opens on Thursday