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Derek Yee: The Comeback Kid

Written by Kevin Ma Tell a Friend

Around 2002, the Hong Kong film industry was plagued with a dilemma - it needed new talent. Film studios were relying heavily on tried-and-true formulas from veteran filmmakers such as Benny Chan, Johnnie To, and Andrew Lau. With only a handful of names breaking through in recent years, the industry was looking for new blood, new stories. But in the end, it would be another veteran - Derek Yee Tung Sing - who would bring a potent kick to Hong Kong cinema. Away from the director's chair for four years, Yee returned at just the right time when Hong Kong needed reliable storytellers the most. One of the most consistent commercial filmmakers in Hong Kong, Yee is perhaps best known internationally as the director of award-winning films such as Lost in Time and One Nite in Mongkok, but behind these recent hits is an illustrious career spanning 30 years.

Born into a showbiz family, Yee is the half-brother of respected character actor Paul Chun and legendary Shaw Brothers actor David Chiang. Over ten years after brother David had already made his name, Yee also entered the film industry as a Shaw Brothers actor in the 1970s. He appeared in over 30 films before finally making his directorial debut with The Lunatics starring Chow Yun Fat and Deanie Ip. The film, a social commentary on Hong Kong society's attitudes towards the mentally ill, earned five Hong Kong Film Award (HKFA) nominations, including two for Yee as director and scriptwriter.

Being an up-and-coming filmmaker did not put a stop to Yee's acting career. He continued to appear in high-profile films such as Magnificent Warriors, Vengeance is Mine, and Kawashima Yoshiko (for which he earned a HKFA Best Supporting Actor nomination). Meanwhile, he also directed commercial films such as People's Hero and The Bachelor's Swan Song. In 1994, Yee finally found his big break as a director with his fourth film - C'est la Vie, Mon Cheri.

The New Love Without End - C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri

Starring Anita Yuen and Lau Ching Wan, C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri sounds like a simple melodrama: an out-of-luck, temperamental jazz musician meets an innocent girl with a sunny disposition and a great group of neighbors who help put his life back together, only to be later struck by tragedy. Although the plot seems like typical Cantonese melodrama fare - even the film's Chinese title is derived from the classic Shaw Brothers film Love Without End - a great ensemble cast and Yee's solid directing propelled the film beyond the trappings of the genre. The film garnered acclaim from both audiences and critics alike, earning 12 nominations at the 1994 Hong Kong Film Awards.

C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri ended up winning six awards - including Best Picture, Best Actress (the first of two consecutive wins for Anita Yuen), and Best Director and Best Screenplay for Yee. Derek Yee continued to act in small roles after the success of C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri, but by then it was apparent that his true calling was behind the camera.

A Racer's Tale - Full Throttle

Where does one go after making one of the best Hong Kong films of the 90s? In Yee's case, he continued down the melodrama path in 1995 with Full Throttle, starring Andy Lau and Gigi Leung. Full Throttle is the story of an underground motorcycle racer's conflicts with his estranged father and his own life. Yee again took what appeared to be a melodramatic plot and churned out a film filled with strong acting, well-written characters, and great motorcycle racing scenes to boot. Released during the Christmas season, Full Throttle was a huge commercial success, surpassing even the box office gross of C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri. On the critical side, Full Throttle earned ten HKFA nominations, including Best Actor, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay. However, the film failed to repeat Yee's previous success and managed to take home only one award, Best Editing.

Self-Reflection - Viva Erotica

After seeing his previous two films become commercial juggernauts, Yee decided to make a completely different kind of film - a Category-III film. Starring Leslie Cheung, Viva Erotica is about a hit-starved director who turns to directing a Category-III sex film for the triads in order to make ends meet. On the set, he meets a veteran porn star with a heart of gold, a female lead who refuses to do nudity, and an overbearing boss. Along the way, he also encounters "Derek Yee" (in a cameo by Lau Ching Wan), who is crushed by the audience reception to his latest film, whose Chinese title is strangely similar to Full Throttle. Filled with sex scenes and cuss words that automatically took away the family-friendly factor, Viva Erotica was like nothing Derek Yee had made before.

While Category-III films are usually associated with trashy exploitation in Hong Kong, Viva Erotica is another creature unto itself, stylishly satirizing art films, triad influence in the film industry, exploitation Category-III films, and even Derek Yee himself. Viva Erotica is also the film that brought Taiwanese actress Shu Qi to Hong Kong cinema. Though the film was criticized for being too ambitious and arthouse, it still managed to earn eight HKFA nominations, with Shu Qi eventually winning both Best Supporting Actress and Best New Artist for her performance.

After the mixed success of Yee's most personal work to date, he returned to the melodrama genre with the low-key The Truth About Jane and Sam, a youth romance starring newcomers Peter Ho and Fann Wong. The film barely made an impact when it was released, and Yee would step back from directing for the next four years. Instead, he turned to producing high-profile films such as Andy Lau's A Fighter's Blues, Jacky Cheung's July Rhapsody, and Leslie Cheung's final film, Inner Senses.

Lost in Time - The New C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri?

In 2003, Yee returned to the camera and the genre he knows best with Lost in Time. The film again starred Lau Ching Wan - this time teamed up with Cecilia Cheung - in a romance about loss and moving on, backdropped by the little-known world of Hong Kong minibuses. Yee's ability to bring out touching performances and strong characterizations gave the local film industry a much-needed kick from its slump, and brought Yee back into the limelight during the award season with nine HKFA nominations. While it couldn't repeat C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri's success, Lost in Time still took two awards, including a Best Actress win for Cheung.

Why is Hong Kong called Hong Kong? - One Nite in Mongkok

After the success of Lost in Time, Yee went to work right away on his next film, the gritty crime drama One Nite in Mongkok. Best described as an ensemble thriller, One Nite in Mongkok starred Alex Fong Chung Sun (reprising his character from the Yee-produced Double Tap), Daniel Wu, and Cecilia Cheung as three people who cross paths and change each other's lives over a 36-hour period in the infamous Hong Kong district of Mongkok. Even though crime thriller - his first since People's Hero in 1987 - wasn't familiar territory for Yee, he still managed to pack the 110-minute film with social commentary, powerful acting, and even some genuine thrills.

The critically acclaimed film only found moderate box office returns, but earned 12 HKFA nominations. In the end, the film gave Yee his first Best Director and Best Screenplay awards since C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri, beating out the heavily favored Stephen Chow and his Kung Fu Hustle.

2005 and The Future - 2 Young, Drink-Drank-Drunk, Protege, and Jackie Chan?

2005 saw Derek Yee returning to familiar territory with two films - youth melodrama 2 Young and romantic comedy Drink-Drank-Drunk. 2 Young stars newcomers Fiona Sit and Jaycee Fong (Jackie Chan's son) as a young couple who must cope with the bittersweet journey of first love and teen pregnancy.

Yee followed up 2 Young with Drink-Drank-Drunk, starring Miriam Yeung and Daniel Wu as co-operators of a restaurant and bakery who fall in love. Both films are smaller films than Yee had grown accustomed to. While Drink-Drank-Drunk received mixed response from the critics, 2 Young earned four HKFA nominations (including Best Director) and won the Best Supporting Actress trophy for veteran actress Teresa Mo, in her first ever Hong Kong Film Award win.

After a yearlong hiatus, Yee teamed up with Peter Chan Ho Sun for the ensemble thriller Protege. The film shows the multi-layered world of the Hong Kong drug trade from the perspectives of a drug lord (played by a silver-haired Andy Lau), an undercover cop (played by Daniel Wu), and junkies (played by Louis Koo and Zhang Jingchu). Opening during the Lunar New Year, an unusual period for a serious exposé on the drug trade, Protégé proved to be a box office winner, and is already considered a frontrunner for next year's Hong Kong Film Awards.

So what's next for Derek Yee? Reports indicate that he is working on a new project with Jackie Chan titled Shinjuku Incident, which will see the action star showing a more serious side as a foreign laborer in Japan. Yee has also mentioned a possible follow-up to One Nite in Mongkok that will again unfold a tight story over a short period of time in crowded Kowloon. Whatever his next film may be, it is fair to say that he is probably the best man for the job. After all, given Derek Yee's track record as one of Hong Kong's best storytellers, it's almost certain that he can do no wrong.

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Published March 23, 2007

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