Lifting the cloud
Action director Dante Lam's own brush with despondency led him to focus on his characters' emotional side in his new film
Director Dante Lam Chiu-yin wants to make films that will give people hope in their battle against the dark dog that is depression.
"I believe there are a lot of difficult moments in life," says the 49-year-old filmmaker who, not so long ago, went through a black period of his own. "The most important thing in my mind is to show the audience that … everyone has these experiences, and that they can be overcome. I also believe that humanity is important and showing this is a big part of the work."
Lam achieved critical and commercial success early in his career with movies such as Beast Cops (1998) and Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone (2000), but subsequent works such as Hit Team (2001) and Undercover Hidden Dragon (2006) under-performed at the box office and attracted little critical acclaim - and he began to feel his career was going nowhere.
In 2008, however, he stormed back with The Beast Stalker, a dark, gritty thriller that won him his first best director award (at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival) since 1998, when he shared the same accolade with Gordon Chan Ka-seung - for Beast Cops - at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
He's going places again, at times literally - a sign his career has moved up yet another notch. Last year's The Viral Factor saw on-location shoots in Jordan and Malaysia, and his latest offering, Unbeatable, is largely set in Macau.
Having achieved commercial success with his action-packed dramas, Lam now wants to make quieter, more character-driven themes. "I've had a lot of ideas for a story that wasn't entirely action-focused for some time now," he says about his inspiration for Unbeatable, which had its world premiere at the Shanghai Film Festival in June.
The film will make its Hong Kong debut as the opening film of this year's Summer International Film Festival.
"Before coming up with this script, I thought a lot about the characters for the story. I thought first about the characters, then about the storyline in which to situate them," says the director, who wrote the script with Fung Chi-fung and regular collaborator Jack Ng Wai-lun.
A character-driven work about loyalty, love and redemption, the film centres on former boxing champion and ex-con Fai (played by Nick Cheung Ka-fai), who flees to Macau to escape debt collectors. While working in a gym he befriends Lin Siqi (Eddie Peng Yu-yan), who asks Fai to train him for the upcoming Golden Rumble Mixed Martial Arts Championship. Fai also gets close to his landlady, Gwen (Mei Ting), who is fighting depression, and her feisty young daughter (Crystal Lee Hing-hau).
Cheung's performance in Unbeatable earned him the best actor prize at the Shanghai festival. Lam and his star have another, positive message for cinemagoers: there's always a better tomorrow.
"Nick and I went through some dark, depressed moments in our own lives. We wanted to emerge from that. We wanted a movie that gave us as well as others hope," the director says.
The film has attracted considerable buzz with photographs of 45-year-old Cheung and 31-year-old Peng's impressive physiques. Lam laughs when asked how his stars managed to look so good. "We had limited time for the production, so they only spent four months training. But we trained eight hours a day for four months!"
Unbeatable is not all about the beefcake. Lam also devoted time to show Fai's softer side in his interactions with Gwen and her daughter. "I wanted to give a totally different feel to this film," Lam says. He portrayed some family issues in previous works such as The Viral Factor, in which Nicholas Tse Ting-fung and Jay Chou Jie-lun played brothers on different sides of the law "but I wanted to focus more on family issues in this film, show the feeling of 'family', how a family should be".
Lam and Cheung have collaborated on five films so far. A 2010 project, tentatively entitled Tung Chap Faan, did not come to fruition; they are now working on Demon Cop, which will be released later this year.
"Nick and I ... first met in 2001, when we worked together on Runaway. We talked a lot and shared a lot of ideas on life then. We kept in touch and maintained our friendship. We continued to share ideas about life and everything. I feel that Nick is a reflection of myself," Lam says.
"We've been good friends for 12 years now, but I didn't even think of working professionally with him. It was like fate that I signed a contract with Emperor [Motion Pictures] and Nick did too. So we got the opportunity to work together on films such as The Beast Stalker and The Stool Pigeon," Lam says.
While thinking about the cast for his earlier, darker works, Lam realised the policeman-turned-actor would be good in them. "Even though Nick played a lot of comic roles before, I found he had this darker, more serious side that could be well utilised in more dramatic roles," the director says.
"On a related note, I feel as if I've been growing along with Nick - it's like we're experiencing different stages of our lives. And since the previous films were dark and depressing, I wanted to give more hope with this one."
And as his latest film contains the message that people who are down and out can still pick themselves up and become unbeatable, the director has done exactly that.
Unbeatable, Tuesday, 7.15pm, 7.30pm, 9.30pm, The Grand Cinema. Part of the Summer International Film Festival. It goes on commercial release on Thursday