THERE IS NO DISGUISING the fact that Simon Yam Tat-wah would prefer a world without ghosts. Strange things happened on the set near the end of the eight-day shoot for his directorial debut, the opening segment of the Hong Kong horror triptych Tales from the Dark.
The elder of twin sisters acting in the film claimed to have seen a man with a pig's head standing next to Yam while he was watching the playback on the monitor. "We burned incense and it quickly went away, but pretty soon it was back," the 58-year-old actor-director recalls. "That was the first and only supernatural encounter of my life."
Yam, an atheist, intermittently returns to the experience throughout the interview. "The elder sister was always tired on the set, whereas the younger one was always energetic," he recalls, seemingly oblivious to the common Chinese belief that people being haunted often feel physically drained. "This made me think that, because she was tired, she was experiencing blurred vision. I thought that she was probably having illusions."
The unexpected encounter provided a suitable footnote to the Tales from the Dark project. Yam decided to get involved with the two-part ghost story series after a personal invitation from Hong Kong writer Lillian Lee Pik-wah - whose stories have been adapted for movies including Rouge, Farewell My Concubine and Dumplings. The second instalment will be screened in August.
It was an uncharacteristic career move by the veteran, who has more than 200 acting credits under his belt. Yam claims that he does not like the genre and can't remember the last time he watched a ghost movie.
"I kept one thing in the back of my mind while I was making this movie," he says. "I believe in UFOs and, although I don't watch ghost movies, I believe in the supernatural because many things that have happened are impossible to explain."
Loosely based on a short story by Lee, in which a downtrodden man loses himself in the supernatural realm after stealing cremation urns from cemeteries to use for blackmail, Yam's 40-minute film is more than just a thrill ride. The actor has been known to shape his movies to document contemporary society, and his debut directorial effort, which juxtaposes the worlds of the dead and the living, is consistent with this attitude. It portrays the bitter struggle of working-class people trying to rise above their miserable fate - or simply keep a roof over their heads.
"There are scary moments in my film, although it's also filled with humanity," says Yam. "Men and ghosts, despite being on different equators, are both looking for their own spaces to live in. The most important theme in the film - and this is our big accusation - is that the policy of keeping land prices high in Hong Kong has made it impossible for its people to relax. People live in cramped flats; as a consequence of the pressure exerted on them by society, dramatic conflicts arise all the time. Humans are turned into wandering ghosts by society. The world of ghosts [in the film] reflects what's happening in Hong Kong."
On top of his duties as a director and one of the cinematographers, Yam played the lead character in the film, who, in his own words, "is - excuse my language - a poor bastard. He is fired from his job, he is bullied by the rich and generally can't get a break from his fate at the bottom of society."
To keep the production efficient, Yam rounded out the cast with some of his usual working partners and friends, including Maggie Shiu Mei-kei, Lam Suet, Yuen Qiu and Felix Lok Ying-kwan.
"These are actors who I've collaborated with, that I'm familiar with," says Yam. "Because I had to finish the shoot in eight days, I was really pressed for time, so I had to find actors who would quickly understand what I want. I had to shoot scenes with dogs and children, and that is always tricky. For this film, I specifically booked a dog because, supposedly, only dogs can see ghosts. But the one we had somehow refused to bark." Yam takes a long, thoughtful pause: "So I had to change my script."
The minor troubles were just growing pains for the first-time director, who is not set on a life behind the lens.
In interviews Yam has hinted that he was interested in directing. "It's not especially my ambition to be a director", he says, however. "If you ask me to make a cop movie, it'd be a piece of cake. If you ask me to make a triad movie, it'd be a piece of cake. But when I was asked to make a ghost movie, it was something I had never done before. What I learned from this project is that, even though [the genre] is new to me, the filmmaking process gives me a new perspective. It enriches my movie world." Although he feels his debut turned out well, Yam says he didn't receive any encouragement from his close friends and mentors when he told them about his plans to direct.
"Johnnie To Kei-fung and Ringo Lam Ling-tung told me not to become a director," he says with a frown. "'What the heck are you directing movies for? Don't do that! Just be an actor', they said."
Weren't the two directors kidding?
"They're so not kidding! To this day I still have no idea why they were saying that to me," he says.
Maybe they were worrying about losing an actor of Yam's calibre?
"We can do it the other way round," he offers. "I can direct the films and they can act for me. So Lam Ling-tung hasn't acted in a bed scene before? That's good - he can play a gentle lover in a bed scene [in my movie]. He can even play a manly lover if he wants!"
Now that would be scary.
Tales from the Dark opens on July 11