Ringo and the kids
THE WIDE, WELCOMING grin on director Ringo Lam Ling-tung's face is highly uncharacteristic of the man they used to call the 'black-faced god' on film sets.
When we first met six years ago, you couldn't get him to smile. But he's a changed man, he says, and it shows. These days, his laughter rings out freely and there is little of the cool, sullen front he used to take refuge behind. At this interview, he is even worried that the cigar he is puffing on will make him look arrogant. 'That wouldn't be nice,' he says with a slightly sheepish grin.
Even Lam is hard-pressed to explain the change but thinks it started while he was working on his international debut and first Jean-Claude Van Damme feature Maximum Risk. He was away from home and working with a foreign crew who didn't understand him. 'On set, I used to be very sullen and have temper tantrums. Can you imagine if I had just finished telling off a foreign crew member and then I turned round to instruct one of the Chinese crew in Cantonese - he [the Westerner] would think I was talking about him and be unhappy,' he says.
Lam is full of surprises these days. At the Cannes Film Festival last month, posters of the new Van Damme movie The Monk were plastered all over the facade of the swanky Carlton Hotel along the Croisette where the film's producers and the star were trying to raise financing through pre-sales. Although Lam wasn't in Cannes, his name - emblazoned on the posters - was everywhere. With his credentials, there must have been much better options. His cult classic City On Fire starring Chow Yun-fat, which Quentin Tarantino has been accused of ripping off for Reservoir Dogs, was on a par with John Woo's A Better Tomorrow. And then there is the gritty behind-bars journey of male-bonding Prison On Fire, another Chow vehicle.
His latest works may not have been commercial successes like those earlier hits, in part because the market has shrunk so much, but his dark and broody cops-and-robbers tale Full Alert and the spooky The Victim still command respect.
After so many horror stories about Van Damme's ego and alleged problems with substance abuse on his film sets, why would any director take on not just one but three projects with 'The Muscles From Brussels'? On John Woo's Hard Target, there were tales of Van Damme sitting in his own editing room doing his own cut for the movie, even as Woo was working on his. Even the intrepid Tsui Hark, who endured Double Take with Van Damme, almost didn't make it through his second helping, Knock/ Off. Even now, Tsui won't talk of that experience.
Lam is not scheduled to start work on The Monk until next year but his second Van Damme movie Replicant (also his second English language film) opens in Hong Kong tomorrow. 'Are people surprised?' he asks of the venture. They are puzzled, I tell him. 'See, I get along great with people. As long as the basic personality is good, I can get along with them. You know, I have always been a little weird that way; I seem to have a knack for dealing with people,' he says, puffing on his Havana.
'I have no problems dealing with Van Damme tsai [kid]. Actors are just like spoiled kids, even in Hong Kong, but I think there's something about me that convinces them that I am genuinely concerned about them. Even though I may be a 'black-faced god' on set, I usually have no problems with my actors. Van Damme may have gone down the wrong road in his personal issues but I offer my views and whether or not he takes them on, it's his decision.'
The mind boggles at the idea of anyone calling Van Damme 'kid' but Lam says mutual respect for each other helps. 'On the set he calls me master and he is the doggie. When I tell him to sit, he sits, and when I tell him to run, he runs.'
Lam's firm manner seems to have impressed 'Van Damme kid'. 'Honestly, I think he's the only director who treats me as an actor, rather than as an action star,' the actor told Impact magazine last year. 'When we made Maximum Risk, he told me, 'You're walking like a boxer. Your character is scared, he's on the run'. He really taught me a lot about the art of acting for the camera. I call him the Martin Scorsese of Asia.'
Believe it or not, Van Damme acts in the US$25 million (HK$195 million) Replicant, which explores cloning. Upholding the traditions of Double Impact and Maximum Risk, he plays a dual role - as a serial killer who had been abused as a child, and the innocent, naive clone the police use to help them catch the culprit. Although the film has yet to be released in the United States or Europe, sneak reviews have generally been positive.
Lam is satisfied with the results. The director admits that the 'good twin, evil twin' scenario may be a little old now but adds: 'I'm really satisfied with his performance. Not many actors could have pulled it off.'
Lam has indeed pulled it off too. Replicant has all the characteristics of the director's dark, broody style but with the testosterone-laden action turned down.
'They let me change a lot of the script. It is more my style,' Lam says. 'I was more emotionally detached from Maximum Risk, I just delivered the story they gave me. [Replicant] is certainly much better. Van Damme and the producers wanted more action in it but I had to balance the story with the action, the money and the time I had. In the end, they gave me the creative space I needed.'
The set in Vancouver, Canada, also had a far a more pleasant atmosphere than Maximum Risk's shoot, where Lam says he spent a great deal of his time detached from the crew and the project. 'On Maximum Risk, I think I had dinner with Van Damme all of three times, on this movie we would have dinner or sit and enjoy some wine or cigars daily. He has more trust in me and I think he now understands what kind of a person I am, that's why he's come to look for me again.'
Working with the Belgian action star wasn't as bad a rap as the media has made it out to be, Lam claims. 'At least he gave me his full concentration for three whole months. You wouldn't get that from a star in Hong Kong. They'd give you a month perhaps, and then try to sneak two commercials and a record in between.
'There are three reasons why I took on this project. First of all, Van Damme gave me my first stab at the international market. Secondly, I was really intrigued by the idea of cloning and, finally, it was an independent production and I wanted to find out how indie production works. I wouldn't even rule out a sequel to Replicant.'
Work aside, Lam's good spirits have also been nurtured by his nine-year-old son. 'You know, before he came along, I had no concept of what the word 'family' meant. I worked round the clock and I thought my wife should understand because I was working. I had a pretty skewered view. After my boy was born, the family bond became stronger. I still love making movies but I cannot miss him growing up. He brings me a lot of joy but he has also made me lazy because I have to find time to spend with him. I have no ambition left,' says Lam, not sounding the least bit sorry.
Of his changed persona, he adds: 'I have a fiery personality and I want to be more balanced and calm. If I consciously go and pursue something, be it fame or money, it could be a big disaster. So I have drawn an imaginary line and try to maintain a level existence and not have too many fluctuating highs and lows.'
Before shooting The Monk, Lam will work on his next Hong Kong movie, tentatively titled Spice On The Rocks - a 'women's romantic comedy with some action mixed in', starring Taiwanese siren Shu Qi and Simon Yam Tat-wah. In it, Shu goes looking for a fantasy lover.
After so many 'male flicks', it will be interesting to see what happens when Lam gets in touch with his feminine side. 'Isn't this an interesting new concept for me?' he says. 'Getting into a woman's mind and filming lots of beautiful people having fun in the sun - it's going to be like taking my children to a picnic on the beach. I want to do something lighthearted for a change. The Victim and Replicant were both too dark. I need to take a break before I can go back to such films.
'I think I am entering the last stage of my career. I don't watch comedies but I want to see if I can still make one. If I can let go of all the brooding darkness, that means I can change too. I will still make action movies; I just don't want them to have such dark themes. My wife keeps asking me why I am so unhappy all the time but I'm changing. I am being educated by my son and I can finally see some hope for myself.'
Despite what Lam calls its 'shallow storyline', Spice On The Rocks hasn't been a bundle of fun so far. Eager to find a less-known actress, Lam spent two months casting in vain. 'I wasn't asking for much. I just wanted someone who was not too famous, who had some talent and who had the time to devote herself to the role. I couldn't find one. Anyone who was even remotely known was too busy to devote so much time to one movie,' Lam says with a sigh.
'The whole reason I chose to write a 'woman's movie' was because everyone says how lacking we are in male stars. I thought it would make things easier for me. I never thought it would turn out this complicated. The whole project almost came to a stop because I couldn't find my star. In the end, I had to go for someone really famous but it helps in this case because Shu Qi is willing to devote her time to making the movie and she has the box-office pull.'
He is looking forward to six weeks of location shooting on the beaches of Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. And to make sure that everyone has a good time, he's even choosing his crew members on their smile and cheer factor. 'The more cheerful and happy they are, the more careful consideration I will give them. I just want to have a happy time,' he says.
And then, the old broody Lam resurfaces: 'I just hope I don't spoil the sunny mood on the film set.'
Replicant opens on tomorrow