Why Hong Kong filmmaker Ringo Lam is an angry man

Now 61, master of big-screen action who influenced a generation of directors including Quentin Tarantino, feels ‘powerless and very angry’ as he contemplates mortality in the wake of his mother's death, and has poured that into his latest film

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 November, 2016, 5:34pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 5:40pm

There are at least two sides to Ringo Lam Ling-tung’s legacy in the popular consciousness – and one is, naturally, as the director behind some of the finest crime thrillers in Hong Kong cinema.

If accolades such as the lifetime achievement award he received at the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival weren’t proof enough of his stature, Lam’s fans could always fall back on the oft-cited trivia that his classic heist drama City on Fire (1987) – with its blend of riveting action, gritty violence and fluid sense of morality – has inspired a generation of filmmakers, among them Quentin Tarantino, whose 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs was thematically similar.

The other Lam is considerably less feted.

Since his career reached an impasse with the straight-to-video Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle In Hell (2003), this less salubrious version of Lam has remained a reclusive figure for more than a decade, only coming out to make a segment for the triptych Triangle (2007) at the urging of fellow veterans and firm friends, Johnnie To Kei-fung and Tsui Hark.

Film review: Wild City - action auteur Ringo Lam returns

Lam’s comeback feature, Wild City (2015), was solid if unmemorable fare, while his upcoming film, Sky on Fire (out in Hong Kong and mainland China this week), looks set to be slaughtered by critics.

When I meet him in a post-production studio on a rainy Monday, Lam reveals yet another side to himself that few people may be familiar with: a tortured artist too entrenched in the golden age of Hong Kong cinema to fully adjust to the lucrative yet restrictive model of today’s filmmaking.

If we had a choice in the future, I wish we could cancel ... co-productions
Ringo Lam

Throughout our 40-minute interview, Lam spoke at length about how he doesn’t like the restraints on casting that the Hong Kong-China co-production model has put on directors, how tired he is of the time-consuming but customary process of adding digital effects, and why “if we had a choice in the future, I wish we could cancel this thing we call co-productions”.

A maker of downbeat crime dramas in the 1980s and ’90s, Lam is mostly saying all the right things these days – albeit often with a note of resignation in his voice and a pained expression on his face. Does his comeback signify a note of confidence in the Hong Kong film business, I ask.

“Let’s not talk about Hong Kong films, and instead put our focus on Chinese-language films,” says Lam, who turns 61 next month.

“And let’s not talk about the eight million audience [in Hong Kong] and instead focus on the 1.4 billion [in mainland China]. Who doesn’t give his life when he’s directing a movie? The whole purpose of making films – apart from pocketing your salary – is for them to be seen. People can praise a good film or pan a bad one all they want, but the vital point is that you have to reach them first.”

Film review: Nessun Dorma – off-key thriller falls flat

The good news about Sky on Fire is that it will be seen by a lot of people following its mainland release on Friday. The bad news is that Lam may be in for a hiding when those people realise how clumsily conceived and incoherently narrated his new work is.

A contemporary action drama with a half-baked futuristic angle, Sky on Fire revolves around the frenetic attempts by several characters to get their hands on a miraculous new drug developed from advanced stem cell technologies.

Among those on the merry-go-round are Daniel Wu Yin-cho (fresh from Into the Badlands and Warcraft ) as the medical company’s security chief, Zhang Jingchu as the estranged wife of a money-mad scientist, and Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan (returning from Wild City) as a Taiwanese man desperate to steal the drug to save his cancer-stricken sister, played by Amber Kuo Tsai-chieh.

Given that he has already depicted money’s corrosive influence in Wild City, Lam was looking to address a subject “more important than money” here, he says. The director’s interest in the premise came from a personal place: Lam’s mother died before the shoot began, while Wu – who was originally slated to star in Wild City – also experienced the death of his mother in 2014.

Film review: Heartfall Arises - laughably bad thriller stars Nicholas Tse, Lau Ching-wan

It’s very tiring dealing with special effects, but you don’t have a choice. You can’t make a film without it [today]
Ringo Lam

“The timing made me think that I should make this film,” says Lam. “I am at an age where I have something to say about life. What is life? There’s nothing that I can do to decide when it ends. I am powerless and I am very angry, so I put that all onto the screen. I let a character say to his fate, ‘When you’ve offered me the best in life, you have no right to take it away from me’.”

With surprising self-awareness, Lam then adds that the “awkward lines of dialogue” viewers find in his film belong solely to him. “I package my films with action; I do it for the audiences. Meanwhile, I have to put these lines into the story to speak my mind – I only need that little [personal] space for myself.”

The exhaustion that Lam suffered in overseeing Sky on Fire’s post-production – which included more than eight months dedicated to digital effects – has made the director postpone his next assignment until 2017. “Now all I want to do is to take a rest,” says Lam. “It’s very tiring dealing with special effects, but you don’t have a choice. You can’t make a film without it [today].”

Film review: Operation Mekong – Dante Lam’s action-film master class

Once he has recovered from the experience, he will proceed to shoot his part for Eight & A Half, the long-gestating omnibus film which also involves Johnnie To, John Woo and others. “Out of the eight directors enlisted, I think only Ann Hui On-wah has finished her part,” Lam says with a chuckle. “I only need three days to finish my shoot, and since I want to make more changes to my story, I haven’t started shooting yet.”

Lam reveals that he is in negotiations to direct a film to express his “nostalgic sentiment for Hong Kong”, but will leave it to fate as to whether the project can come to fruition. When I ask if he feels inspired by the social and political climate in Hong Kong in recent times, Lam gets a little defensive.

“To be honest, I don’t talk about politics,” he says. “I don’t like politics. Politics disturb my mind all the time, and that’s why I travel a lot. I need to get away from Hong Kong. … I’m too old to communicate [with the present reality]. I don’t like it.”

Film review: S Storm – Julian Cheung, Louis Koo in frivolous graft-buster sequel

Then the filmmaker responsible for some of the most subversive scenes of mayhem ever seen on Hong Kong screens says with understatement: “I am a very simple man. I tell stories about people, with a little bit of visual excitement thrown in for everyone’s enjoyment. That is it. Everything I need to say is already said on the screen.”

Sky on Fire opens on November 24

Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook

An incomplete version of this interview was posted at 1733 on Tuesday. The final four, missing, paragraphs, were added at 1937.