Two remarkable films from Hong Kong-based director Ringo Lam will screen on 35mm prints at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. In City on Fire (1987, screening this Saturday at 8:30pm), a charming undercover detective (played by a young Chow Yun-fat) surrenders to departmental and familial pressure to infiltrate a gang of jewel robbers, which leads both to his stranding his fiancé (Carrie Ng) and to growing perilously close to the group’s most intelligent thief (Danny Lee). In Full Alert (1997, screening this Sunday at 2 P.M.), an initially family-grounded police investigator (Lau Ching-wan) veers towards psychopathy as he leads an increasingly obsessed and isolated hunt for a prison-escaped gang member (Francis Ng) and the man’s girlfriend (Chung Lai-Hung).
In both films—which are ostensibly urban action movies—violence is seen as a social disease. It infects decent people living on both sides of the law, and spreads from them virally to engulf their loved ones. These grim films might be unbearable were it not for Lam’s warm and sensitive attentions to his characters and for his actors’ richly emotional performances. The men and women at the hearts of these films live dreaming of escape from present-day sufferings, and make their best efforts to survive through a fragile hope (sometimes a delusion) of rising above them.
Lam himself (who was born in Hong Kong in 1955) will attend this year’s NYAFF presentations of his films and receive the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award following City on Fire’s screening. In the interview below, he speaks about the making of both films as well as that of the forthcoming Wild City (2015), his first feature in eight years, and one that he has spoken about in other interviews as an informal close to a trilogy. Thanks go to Emma Griffiths, and particularly to NYAFF programmer and Lam assistant Dana Fukazawa, for facilitating the conversation.
How did you come to make City on Fire?
The film market in Hong Kong back then had been conquered by popular comedies, many of which were produced by Cinema City, the studio for which I worked. After I directed my fourth feature, Aces Go Places IV (1986), though, the studio boss Karl Maka became convinced that comedy was not my forte. One day he told me that I could write and shoot any film that I wanted to make so long as I kept its budget under four million Hong Kong dollars. I was puzzled, and at first I didn’t know what to film. Eventually I decided that I enjoyed the realistic aspects of The French Connection (1971) and that I wanted to create a film containing similar grit.
City on Fire was inspired by a real-life jewelry store robbery. Police resistance to the heist had been intense and had ended in a massive shootout from which the thieves had eventually escaped. A tale came into my mind of a police mole infiltrating the gang, with an intense sense of brotherhood forming between the cop and one of the robbers. The undercover detective would be a man stuck between his duties to work and to his private life, someone who betrays a friend to complete a mission before helplessly sacrificing himself.
The film resonated with my vulnerable side, a place where I was residing after having tired of making comedies. If you have a strong heart, then you can tackle any subject.
And Full Alert?
I started making Full Alert in 1996, shortly after finishing my film Maximum Risk (1996). Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China was to occur in 1997, and I intended for the film to be a record of the city’s last pre-handover days. At the beginning of the film, a character says that, “If you commit a murder, then you will bear the cost forever.” I believed that I had killed too many people onscreen in my previous films, and when I looked back at all the violence, it sometimes made me shudder.
Yet because reality is brutal and full of violence, I felt compelled to show it. At the end of this film, its so-called hero shoots to kill. He collapses in a way that he will regret for the rest of his life.
What do you believe that City on Fire and Full Alert have in common?
We could start with characterization and acting. My characters are all created from the bottom of my heart. They basically reflect my own condition, and the actors working with me see and understand this and draw inspiration for their work. The actors’ performances in City on Fire and Full Alert share a very personal quality.
The two films also share many other things—for instance, they both reflect on Hong Kong’s changing state. As someone born in the city, it comes naturally to me to want to document the things that have been happening to it over time. My films reveal a particular, not-so-pleasant side of Hong Kong from the inside out.
How do you believe that you are a different filmmaker today from the one who made these films?
I treasure filmmaking now more then ever now, because I know that each new film that I make could possibly be my last.
My latest film, Wild City—like City on Fire and Full Alert—is an urban crime thriller. It traces environmental and ideological shifts in present-day Hong Kong from the point of view of a group of helpless civilians. As lost souls drift through the city, I ask myself if there will be a better tomorrow. The only answer that I can find, and that the film proposes, is to live in oblivion.
How do you see yourself in relation to other Hong Kong action directors whose careers have overlapped with yours, such as John Woo and Johnny To?
They are my good friends, and I believe that our audiences know very well the differences between our films. I’d love to hear from you about them, too.