Kaiju Shakedown: Ringo Lam
City on Fire
Not as flashy as John Woo, never as hyperkinetic as Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam is one of Hong Kong’s most underappreciated directors. He made his name with sophisticated, downbeat crime dramas that came to define a certain style of urban Hong Kong cinema in the Eighties and early Nineties. After getting his start in television at CTV and TVB, he directed five features before finding his stride with 1987’s City on Fire, the movie that provided the blueprint for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Released only a few months after John Woo and Tsui Hark’s A Better Tomorrow, it also starred Chow Yun-fat, and together these two movies launched the heroic bloodshed genre in Hong Kong. His next movie with Chow was Prison on Fire (87), another big hit, and he quickly followed up with School on Fire (88), which was savaged by censors (who required 30 cuts for content and tone) and released opposite Jackie Chan’s Police Story II. Needless to say, it disappeared at the box office, but it remains one of his best films and is crying out for a restoration.
After that came Wild Search (89) a laid-back romance with a sprinkle of action, and then Prison on Fire II (91), another big hit. Burned by his experience with School on Fire, Lam decided to make an apolitical movie, unleashing Full Contact (92), of which he says in an interview with the Hong Kong Film Archive: “I didn’t want to make a film that had anything to do with the sociological or political issues and situations of the time. I wanted to wash my hands of them and start with a clean slate. People had threatened to chop me up, accused me of having wrong political views, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with those things. I wanted to make a film with a style no one could put a finger on.” He then scored another hit with what might be his darkest and most unrelenting movie yet, Full Alert (97), which in a way was his farewell to Hong Kong and the crime genre. His next two movies were a big-budget action film that flopped (The Suspect, 98) and a horror movie (Victim, 99). After turning in the light romantic comedy Looking for Mr. Perfect (03), he disappeared. Aside from directing a segment of the three-part film Triangle (07), he has been quiet for 11 years.
Earlier this year, Ringo Lam announced that he was shooting a new film, Hustle (now called Wild City). Starring Shawn Yue, Joseph Chang, Louis Koo, and Jack Kao, it’s an epic of greed that the production company describes thusly:
“Welcome to Hong Kong, where everyone is in a fever about one thing: money. In this capitalist paradise, money is as vital as life itself, and everything has a price. Youth, dignity, dreams… they’re all for sale. Money separates people into classes—high and low—and it pushes the limits of what we think we can endure. The only way to resist the evil lure of money is love, and our innate human nature.”
A couple of weeks ago, Lam took time out from his shooting schedule on Wild City to talk with screenwriter Hiroshi Fukazawa. Their conversation took place at the Tao Li dim sum restaurant at Nikko Hotel in TST East, Kowloon on a Saturday afternoon over a pot of Oolong Tea, Spring Roll, Chasiu Rice Roll, Chicken Bundle, Garlic Squid dish, Prawn Dumplings, and Ringo’s favorite Siu Mai (reportedly he ate three out of the four).—Grady Hendrix
Ringo Lam on set
What was your first day of shooting on Wild City like?
I fainted and fell due to heatstroke on the first day on set!
Are you serious?
Yeah, I totally passed out, it was too hot. I’m not kidding you. But I hung in there, tough as a rock, and completed the film. I’m feeling great now.
Can you tell us a little bit about the plot and characters of Wild City? How does it relate to City on Fire and Full Alert?
One might consider Wild City as part of the “City Trilogy” along with City on Fire and Full Alert. These films are all set in Hong Kong and are about people who are lost in the city. In Wild City the theme is about the temptation of money, and how it seduces the protagonists, but also forces them to challenge the plutocracy.
So many of your early films were about Hong Kong people with no power (prisoners, students, small-time criminals) fighting people with power (cops, big criminals, teachers, administrators). What does power look like in Hong Kong now? In your opinion, who is the winner in this society today and who has lost? Has it changed that much since the Eighties, or is it still the same?
I believe this is a universal issue, in the U.S. and in Japan too. Every nation is fighting for its own benefit and for the interest of its citizens. People are no different, full of selfishness and greed. And when there are powerful people at a higher rank, there’s a grass-roots movement. This is the basic structure of society; therefore there’s always an urge to vent, to unleash the unfairness. My film is reflecting the reality of the situation. Nevertheless, my characters are not failures, they are just lost. Lost in the city, lost in the situation, or losing faith because they failed to be that someone they wanted to be and aren’t happy about it. Compared to the Eighties? It’s all the same here. I’d say the hardware has upgraded but the software remains unchanged. It may look different from the outside, but deep down inside it’s all same—everyone is greedy and we’re all selfish.
In Full Alert there are many scenes shot in areas of Hong Kong that don’t exist anymore. That film is almost like a record of a vanished time. Has the spirit of the city changed since then, or only the physical city? For better or for worse?
Bizarre is the word. It’s getting more and more aggravating, like we’re living in hot water and we’re this close to the boiling point. Society is much wealthier, but our living standard doesn’t get any better because of the ridiculous inflation. Everything is way too expensive and unaffordable. In Hong Kong, the population has grown and there are more new buildings, but people can’t afford to buy an apartment in them. There are empty houses everywhere here. Nowadays most people in Hong Kong live in cramped apartments that are almost uninhabitable. In Cantonese, we say “clothing, eating, living, and mobility” are the four essential human needs, and the living standard is just horrible. Then again, inequality between rich and poor is everywhere—it’s a universal issue. Wall Street has the same problem, too. Obama didn’t change a single thing, he didn’t solve any problem. I’d say back in George W. Bush’s days—we call him Bush Jr. in Chinese—everything seemed more peaceful. Asia hasn’t gotten any better since Obama began running the house, and the political environment is more intense than ever, things are unresolved, and war has never stopped in the Middle East… It’s simply bizarre.
It’s been over 10 years since you directed a feature. What is it about this project that made you want to direct again?
It was a combination of things. It was about time for me to come back to making movies. My son has graduated from college, and I think my wife has had enough of seeing me at home. I’m already 60 and my days of filming are numbered, or have begun counting down. I’ll be lucky if I can have 10 more years to make films. Wild City just came naturally to me. I’d like to make films that allow me to express myself. It’s a device for me to unburden myself, to get things off my chest, and also a mirror to learn more about myself through the film I made. I don’t make films for money anymore.
Why did you stop directing for so long?
Again, it was a variety of reasons. I was upset about the filming environment in Hong Kong during the early 2000s and my last movie, Finding Mr. Perfect, tanked at the box office. Audiences would only embrace me for making the same movie over and over again, yet I don’t see the point in repeating myself endlessly. Moreover, I had been working for more than 20-odd years in this business, so it was time for me to be the protagonist of my own life, in my own film where I’m the leading man. I wanted to spend more time with my family, to travel around the world, to enjoy nature, to revitalize my life, and above all, to observe people and learn more about them. I wanted to seek resources, material, and subjects that were worth making into films.
How has filmmaking changed in Hong Kong since you last directed a project?
I must say we have bigger budgets for production now, but ironically there’re only a few bankable actors that audiences will buy tickets to see. Consider the drastic growth in patrons from the Mainland Chinese market: we’re now making movies for over a billion people there. By comparison, there’s just a little more than seven million in Hong Kong. And yet only a handful of actors can get top billing on a film. A lack of film crews is also a major issue nowadays. Most experienced filmmakers and crew members have moved and work in Mainland China now—they’re out of Hong Kong.
What bothers me the most is the decline of action stuntmen in Hong Kong. Due to the common accessibility of CGI in recent years, no one does real action or real stunts like we used to film back in the Eighties. It’s kind of unwise, in my opinion, as you can never outgun Hollywood in terms of CGI technology, but real action and stunts were always our forte, our winning streak. The action scenes in Full Alert are all real, and we shot them secretly without a shooting permit, right in the street. After my filming hiatus, I was reunited with my fellow stuntmen who all showed up with gray hair—many disappeared and are unreachable now. There are absolutely no newcomers. The new kids in the field play a different game now—they all rely on CGI very heavily, and you’ve gotta admit that CGI is way different from an authentic action stunt. In Hong Kong film’s heyday, we made a brand name for our authentic, cutting-edge action sequences: we were selling the sense of realism and the feeling of genuine danger, not computer graphics.
Looking back, Hong Kong movies in the Eighties redefined the action genre worldwide. It was a breakthrough because of our uniqueness. Hong Kong comedies and romances can never reach that high standard—perhaps with a few exceptions of art films like Wong Kar Wai’s, but it’s rare. When you talk about Hong Kong flicks, you talk about Hong Kong action films. Without well-equipped and skilled action stuntmen, the tradition of the Hong Kong action genre will vanish. I must say, today, in terms of real action and real car stunts, the rising Thai film business has already surpassed Hong Kong, and Korean films, which are a mixture of Hollywood and Hong Kong style, are also doing a better job than us. The only existing genre that Hong Kong filmmakers still excel at is fantasy martial arts, with flying swordsmen and weapons, like the movies by Tsui Hark, because they are based on the fundamental history of China. Korean films can’t tackle this genre due to a lack of stories and legends from history. But this genre is only a treat for Chinese, and not really for overseas audience interest.
Was it hard to return to the set, or did it feel like you never left?
After recovering from heatstroke on the first day, I’m back in good shape, but then again, when you give your full concentration and really care about the work you are doing, eventually you’ll feel the pressure, both physically and mentally, because you want to do your best. It’s intense and far from relaxing because you care a hell of a lot about it. Do I feel like I never left? Hell yeah, I’m in my element. In Chinese you say: “Every wish in my mind, my hands accomplished.”
Finally, did you enjoy your break from directing? Was it relaxing for you? What did you spend your time doing? Did you miss directing at all?
I’ve learnt to become more hopeful and spent time contemplating the meaning of optimism. I tended to avoid movies during those days. I stay away from movies if I can. I don’t watch them, I don’t even want to think about them. But I missed them when I was sleeping, in my dreams.
Wait a minute, are you trying to tell me we’d get to see a more optimistic kind of Ringo Lam movie next?
I didn’t intentionally try to reinforce the optimism in my films. All I can say is some of the central characters get the chance to survive at the end. However, the continued survival of these people won’t change a thing. The world still runs its course.
Hiroshi Fukazawa directed the documentary Development Hell (07) about the making of Bodyguards & Assassins, and he writes screenplays in Hong Kong.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
The Dragons and Tigers program at the Vancouver International Film Festival may not be as swanky as TIFF, but since 1985 it’s been bringing more experimental, artisier, and more obscure Asian movies to Canada than its Toronto cousin. A reader reminded me that it’s only fair to cover VIFF if I’m covering TIFF, so here’s this year’s Dragons and Tigers lineup in the order of what I think sounds like the most fun.
HAEMOO (South Korea, Shim Sung-Bo)
This big movie about the horrifying human-smuggling incident that resulted in dozens of dead immigrants, based on a true story and produced by Bong Joon-Ho, has been getting rave reviews.
MAN ON HIGH HEELS (South Korea, Jang Jin)
Some folks might find the topic patronizing—a typical tough Korean cop beating up suspects for the truth is actually transgendered, a woman trapped in a hard dude’s body. But the director is Jang Jin (Welcome to Dongmakol, The Recipe, Going by the Book), one of Korea’s smartest, funniest directors who consistently delivers thoughtful, emotional movies that always entertain but never pander.
NON-FICTION DIARY (South Korea, Jung Yoon-Suk)
One of the highlights of the festival, this agitprop documentary about Korea in the early Nineties focuses on the Jijon Gang, who killed five people for what they said were political reasons. An exploration of Korea’s transition from military rule to democracy, it’s being hailed not just as a great documentary but as one of the most fascinating movies from Korea last year. It’s also set to screen at NYFF in a few weeks.
UNCLE VICTORY (China, Zhang Meng)
My pick for the movie I’m most excited about, this sounds like a Mainland version of the Bad News Bears. Directed by Zhang Meng (The Piano in a Factory) it’s all about a violent ex-con who takes over a kindergarten. It won the Jury prize at the Shanghai Film Fest, despite enormous controversy when the actor playing Uncle Victory (Huang Haibo) was caught hiring a prostitute and sentenced to six months in a re-education camp.
THE MIDNIGHT AFTER (Hong Kong, Fruit Chan)
Sales agent Fortissimo Films did a great job of keeping this extraordinary movie off the festival circuit in North America, and now the buzz around it is pretty much dead. Too bad, but at least Vancouver is in for a treat. A science-fiction flick in which the passengers on a mini-bus discover they’re the only people left in the city. Even the trailer is amazing. Also extraordinary is Simon Yam’s hair.
THE HORSES OF FUKUSHIMA (Japan, Matsubayashi Yoju)
Try to resist this documentary. Director Matsubayashi Yoju was shooting in Fukushima when he came across a stable of injured horses who were slated to be sold for their meat. With the horses now radioactive and inedible, their owner decided that rather than destroy them he’d train them to take part in an annual Shinto horse ritual. The focus is on one failed racehorse in particular because “its injuries included an embarrassingly inflamed penis.” Also, it’s only 74 minutes long. I’ve already got my ticket. The Hollywood Reporter liked it too.
JUNGLE SCHOOL (Indonesia, Riri Riza)
Indonesian director Riri Riza just can’t stop making movies about kids going to school. In 2008 he scored a massive hit with Laskar Pelangi about kids in the country going to school, and here he is again with Jungle School, about a teacher running a school in the middle of nowhere. And you know what? If it’s half as good as Laskar Pelangi, you should see it.
BLACK COAL, THIN ICE (China, Diao Yinan)
A festival favorite since it premiered at Berlin last year and won the Golden Bear, this murder mystery set in the frosty north of China has been getting rave reviews.
BLIND MASSAGE (China, Lou Ye)
One of China’s preeminent arthouse directors, Lou Ye, has been slowly moving more and more into the mainstream, and this is a surprisingly gentle and humane film for a Chinese art-house director. Film festivals usually prefer scathing critiques of man’s inhumanity to man from Mainland Chinese filmmakers, but Lou Ye’s ensemble drama about the blind and semi-blind workers at a massage clinic is just beautiful. And the reviews are great.
OW (Japan, Suzuki Yohei)
The kind of movie that VIFF was designed to show, this low-budget Japanese whatzit is a semi-science-fiction film about a mysterious sphere that appears in an apartment, just hovering. Described as political, funny, and deeply strange, the trailer pretty much confirms that it’s worth a watch.
NUOC 2030 (Vietnam, Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh)
Billed as “Vietnam’s first sci-fi eco-thriller” this murder mystery looks to be ambitious, lo-fi sci-fi.
SHARING (Japan, Shinozaki Makoto)
Part horror film, part fantasy movie, part art flick, Shinozaki Makoto turns in a movie about two women obsessed by the 2011 tsunami: one lost her fiancé in it, and the other is staging a play about it.
UNCERTAIN RELATIONSHIPS SOCIETY (Hong Kong, Heiward Mak)
One of Hong Kong’s most frustrating and inconsistent directors, Heiward Mak sometimes makes movies that feel fresh and new and vital, and sometimes she makes movies that feel dead and dull and over-marketed. Now she’s got a new film, this time about five Hong Kongers in their twenties and how they interact with each other over six years. Might be a masterpiece, might be crap. With Heiward Mak you never know, but it’s usually worth the risk.
REKORDER (Philippines, Mikhail Red)
Already getting great reviews, this version of “guy records everything in his life and accidentally records a murder and then it goes viral” is supposedly far more fascinating than many other attempts to make movies about moviemaking.
COMING HOME (China, Zhang Yimou)
Gong Li and Zhang Yimou, together again. This time, China’s flagship Serious Director gets to make a movie about the ultra-sensitive Cultural Revolution as long as it revolves around a character (Li) who has amnesia and can’t remember it.
DISCONCERTO (Japan, Omori Tatsushi)
It’s described as super-fun and incredibly charming, but that’s all I know about the latest movie from ultra-serious Japanese director Omori Tatsushi (Whispering of the Gods, 05). There is a trailer, though.
FLOWING STORIES (Hong Kong, Tsiang Tsui-shan)
Sometimes considered the great female hope of Hong Kong movies, Tsiang won “Best New Director” at the Hong Kong Film Awards for her first feature, Big Blue Lake, and this documentary about a single family, the Laus. Where they immigrated, what happened to them, and how they live continues her fascination with her hometown, the New Territories village of Ho Chung.
A CORNER OF HEAVEN (China, Zhang Miaoyan)
Director Zhang Miaoyan was born in Manchuria during the Cultural Revolution, went to UC Berkley and became a writer, and this is his second film. His first film, Xiaolin Xiaoli, got a pretty good review from The Hollywood Reporter.
THE FURTHEST END AWAITS (Japan, Chiang Hsiu-chiung)
A Japanese flick directed by a Taiwanese woman who spent years as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s assistant, this movie about the friendship between two women is being called beautiful and “quite an achievement,” as well as garnering the inevitable Ozu comparisons.
THE IRON MINISTRY (China, J.P. Sniadecki)
For this American-Chinese co-production, the director spent three years shooting footage on trains to make a well-reviewed documentary about China and its train system. (This will also screen at NYFF.)
MEN WHO SAVE THE WORLD (Malaysia, Liew Seng Tat)
This is playing at TIFF and the question remains: is it a train wreck or a good time at the movies? Variety is decrying it as “neo-colonialist” and “loaded with racially problematic scenes and homophobic gags,” but this Malaysian comedy about a haunted house seems to be getting booked into lots of film festivals and has the support of a whole slew of big-name international art-house production outfits like the Hubert Bals Fund and the Sundance Institute.
EXIT (Taiwan, Chienn Hsiang)
Normally if you describe a film as a “subtly beautiful Taiwanese urban drama,” I’ll run screaming in the other direction, but this flick at least has a great pedigree. Star Chen Shiang-chyi has appeared in something like six Tsai Ming-liang movies, and director Chienn Hsiang was the cinematographer who shot 20:30:40 and the dazzling Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast, so at least you know it’ll look good.
THE SUN THE MOON AND THE HURRICANE (Indonesia, Andri Cung)
Let Tony Rayns’s blurb decide for you on this one, because I’m not qualified: “Andri Cung’s debut feature is essentially about the ways we all learn from experience . . . It flirts with schmaltz in a few voice-overs and with melodramatic excess in its closing scenes, but is for the most part acutely observed, exceptionally well-acted, and ardently sincere.”
THE DOSSIER (China, Zhu Rikun)
A two-hour documentary about Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer who grew up as a Han Chinese, rejected that identity to embrace her roots as a Tibetan, and became an outspoken online advocate for justice in Tibet. It’s described as a “sharply designed, formally innovative documentary,” which will either make you buy a ticket or go get drunk.
HILL OF FREEDOM (South Korea, Hong Sang-Soo)
I’m not a Hong Sang-Soo fan, and I think his career has mostly been about showing movies at film festivals rather than to paying audiences. And yet here he is again, with another movie playing film fests. Nevertheless, programmers adore him, so I’m probably wrong.
REVIVRE (South Korea, Im Kwon-Taek)
I have no patience for old directors who make movies about old men trying to have sex with young girls, but despite my puritanical and judgmental attitude this latest film from Korea’s grand old man of cinema is getting surprisingly good (albeit qualified) reviews.
JOURNEY TO THE WEST (Taiwan, Tsai Ming-liang)
Noted Taiwanese art-house director Tsai Ming-liang is making lots of movies that are about a monk walking very slowly. This is one of them. I’d rather shoot myself, but then again I like having fun at the movies, so what do I know?