We talk to the Hong Kong filmmaking legend on his return to cinema with Wild City…
Ringo Lam is an innovator of highly celebrated Hong Kong Crime cinema. His pervasively influential films, such as City on Fire, Full Contact, and Full Alert, have shaped the cinematic styles of well known filmmakers both local and abroad. He is well known for his observational yet melodramatic take on the chaotic metropolis that is Hong Kong. His subject matter is often refreshingly stark, and his characters feature complex portrayals of existential turmoil. Lam boasts a repute of both a deeply emotive thinker as well as a skilled director of suspense and action. The man I met was brimming with charisma, enthusiasm, and kindness. His accounts of his past work were so energetic and detailed, that one would never suspect that he had just resurfaced from a ten year hiatus. Even more so, the youthful fervor with which he discussed both his evolving consciousness and cinematic ambitions, would never lead you to believe that he is already considered an industry veteran. So revered is his impact on Asian cinema, that on June 27th, 2015, Ringo Lam received the New York Asian Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. The honor is unarguably well deserved but does not tell the complete story of the director himself. Lam exudes the vigor of a film student, and seems to be looking to the future far more than the past. Here is the talk we had the same day he received the award.
Before becoming a filmmaker, you joined TVB and wanted to be an actor. Did you see yourself becoming a filmmaker when you were young, did you always want to act?
Before the age of 18, since I was very poor, I couldn’t even afford to buy a ticket and go to the cinema. So I rarely went. One day I joined an acting training class in TVB. I was with my brother Nam Yin, scriptwriter of prison on fire, he loved movies and I just kept him company. We both went to fill out the application form to join the class, and I got selected, and I joined, and (laughs) my brother didn’t get in. So I didn’t plan to be trained as an actor, never, I didn’t really know about filmmaking when I was young, I had no plan at all. I only found out I like filmmaking after the acting training class, only after I followed my master Wong Tin Lam, he worked as a producer at TVB, I was lucky and was picked by him to be his assistant, I Learned a lot from him.
After working at TVB I immigrated to Toronto, Canada. When I first got there, I tried to study computers, and that only lasted for two weeks. And still my English was very poor, until now my English has been very poor, and I didn’t care what I did to sustain my living, work, job, all I wanted to do is study film. I tried to get into a York University film class, but it was full, so I just waited in the lobby, reception area, and just asked if there was any chance I could get into a film course. A professor told me “you could join the theatre”, “no! I don’t want theatre, I want film.” (laughs). So I waited till the following summer, and then they got room. And, it was funny, those film books had very difficult English, very hard to understand, but I could read them, I could just continue to read those books, and then I began to get into film. So that’s really when I began getting into filmmaking. I never thought I would become a filmmaker.
And then you came back to Hong Kong and began directing your own films. I think it was Tsui Hark who got you your first job. There was very little time in between you graduating and helming your own films, how did that transition work?
I met Tsui Hark at TVB when I was already a director at TVB. One day I meet a guy, Tsui Hark, we met in the morning when I was ready to go out filming on location. A stranger came up to me and asked if he can join me on set, I said “who are you?”, he said “I am a trainee”, so I said “ok jump in, let’s go!”. Since then we became great friends.
Both of us would always go to see black and white films at the university. They were always in German, Russian, French, and we would never understand what it was about. And when it was finished we would walk out, very quiet, and pretend we understood what we were watching. But I didn’t understand! Visually it was really interesting though. So I went to Canada. Then, two years later he calls me and says he wants me to come back and make films. I said “no, I still need to wait for my Canadian passport, I will stay here until I am Canadian.” Then I go back to Hong Kong, and there is a job waiting for me, because Tsui Hark, remembered what I can do.
Then you made several comedy films, and because of their commercial success, you were given 4 million HK dollars to make City on Fire. Do you think that the independence and chaos with which that film was formed contributed to the originality and success that made it one of your most memorable films?
To do comedy, that’s not the type of movie I like anyway. I like French Connection type movie, American cop stuff, realistic. That’s why when I got the opportunity to work on a movie, whatever movie, with the 4 million HK budget, I ended up working on City on Fire.
And your brother he co-wrote City on Fire?
No my brother showed up after City on Fire. Nam Yin helped me script Prison on Fire, and scored it. His influence on me was that my movies would get more and more realistic. If I work on a script myself, like City on Fire, to a certain extent, the movie becomes more romanticized, but when we come to Prison on Fire, this romanticism, starts to minimize, when we get to School on Fire, it’s getting more and more (pounds fist into his palm)… I myself am not so (trails off)
Well, you said in an interview that Full Alert has this awareness of murder, and how terrible it is, that you went back to your previous films, and saw how many people you had murdered, and felt almost responsible. Can you elaborate on this realization? and what does this mean for violence in Wild City?
If you remember Full Alert, in the beginning, the first line that Lau Ching delivers, says that if you kill someone you can never escape, right? in the end of the movie he did fire and kill somebody, and then he fell, and he lied down on the ground… that’s how I feel. Killing on screen, too much blood, I try to minimize it. But the reality is very brutal. If I work on a realistic movie, how can I avoid it? I try to escape, I don’t want to watch movies, I don’t want to watch the news… too much violence, all around the world, so many people killed. So I do feel deeply inside, but what can I do? I would rather stay on a mountain, live alone up there, but when I come back and have to make a movie, I have the face of reality, its like the image of the present day conditions, I cannot look away from it. Wild City, the way I see it, is softer, not so hard. I try to avoid too much bloodshed, but here (points to his head), my brain, my mind, still has the same context within it, no matter how the images appear, that feeling of violence is still there. Even though I cut down a lot on the physical violence on screen, subconsciously it is there. You just translate it on film.
So for Wild City, you have also talked about how today CGI is replacing stuntmen. There are less and less stuntmen, more and more CGI. How do you utilize these techniques in Wild City, has your opinion on the matter changed?
In Wild City, I used CG shots, but I tried to make it extremely realistic, to the degree that the audience can never be aware that there is CG present. That’s how I try to utilize it. Its in order to avoid danger to the stuntmen, I have to be more careful, and make sure the safety factor is put first when working with action stars.
What was safety like on your older films before CGI, was there a higher degree of dynamism to your old stunts, more danger on set?
In my old movies, safety was still always the first consideration. When I worked on City on Fire, and Full Alert, nobody got hurt. Wild City disappointed me! I got the CG stuff, still one action guy got hurt. The movie before, Twin Dragons, somebody got hurt, I felt really bad, then a second one got hurt. So when I was on location, I asked Jackie Chan, “Jackie come over. I have every camera set up to take this one shot, do me one favor” “what”, “you just call camera, action, I have everything ready, I have everything prepared for the speedboat chasing scene”, he said “no!” and he ran away (laughs). It was movies like that where I was in charge of all the actions stuff, there is a speedboat race, prison car crash, it was very frustrating.
Why such dark thematic elements, so much crime, such lost characters, why do you insist on focusing on these elements of Hong Kong?
Its not just Hong Kong. When I watch the news, so many students get shot in America, on campus, essentially all of these things, I cannot hear it, but since I live in Hong Kong, and my environment is so chaotic, all of these things consciously, or subconsciously, those elements translate in my form. And, as I said, what can I do? I feel helpless. Maybe that can explain the reason why, my characters in my movies, they are also really helpless. Things are not under control, you do something, and maybe you are not willing to do it, but you still have to do it. “I don’t want to make a violent movie”, but the investor says, “you have to do it, or you won’t get the financing.” “I want to do a love story!” “No Ringo, you don’t do love movies.”
Do you really want to do a love story?
I’d like to, particularly at this age. Hopefully there is an investor who could give me a chance. Then I would like to express another side of me.
So you do have plans to make films after Wild City?
After Wild City will be a new one, Battle for Life, the script is 90% written, I want to do this movie, the theme is about life and death, to live or to die, okay? this will be my coming project.
How have you conceived your American audience so far, I know most of your films have not received wide release here, were you surprised to find out you were receiving a lifetime achievement award?
Very surprising. After I stopped making movies for over ten years, they still remember me. The moment I came out to finish one movie, Wild City, and then they offer me a surprise, there is an award, and I’m gonna get it in New York! in America! This really means something. Its a big encouragement, really big encouragement. I feel like, the people here, they can understand me more than the people back in Hong Kong.
Really? Why do you think that is?
They don’t watch the film from “this” angle, they only watch movies (impersonates American) “is there enough action?”, “how big are the cars?” well does that mean that they understand more about me than the people back home? And then I would ask, well why didn’t I get a lifetime achievement award in Hong Kong, why did I get it in New York? So I have to say it’s all surprising.