The Incendiary Cinema of Ringo Lam

The best films by the Hong Kong New Wave director are as vital, as live, and as powerful as anything anyone of his generation ever made.
Sean Gilman
Ringo Lam
Ringo Lam’s death this past December 29 at the age of 63 sparked outpourings of appreciation from across the world, with attention in America focused mostly on his two most famous films, City on Fire (1987) and Full Contact (1992), each of which were elevated to the canon in the days when Hong Kong movies could be found here for the most part only on cheap, imported, usually dubbed VHS tapes in the country’s more adventurous video stores. City on Fire was famous more as the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) than on its own merits, while Full Contact delivered all the gory nihilistic charms of a grindhouse cinema that was vastly more alive than anything Hollywood ever bothered to produce. But there’s much more to Lam’s work than cheap thrills and story material for directorial magpies.  
Ringo Lam was part of a remarkable generation of filmmakers, working in what was at the time the most exciting film industry in the world, documenting a vibrant societal maze of irresolvable contradictions. The years between the 1984 Joint Declaration (in which Britain agreed to cede Hong Kong back to Mainland China after a hundred or so years of laissez-faire colonial rule) and the 1997 Handover (when the colony officially became a part of the People’s Republic, the meaning of which is still in flux and will continue to be for some time) sparked some of the most vital films ever made, created by a relatively small and inter-connected group of directors, writers, performers and craftspeople who came of age after the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war, when the heretofore sleepy colony’s population and economy boomed beyond all recognition, creating massive disparities and injustices between poverty and wealth, power and powerlessness.
In the late 1970s, these filmmakers, many of whom worked in local television and/or had studied internationally, burst onto the scene with a series of highly inventive, free-wheeling genre films that shattered the tasteful stage-bound illusions of the dominant Shaw Brothers studio. This Hong Kong New Wave has generally been limited to the initial core directors Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, Patrick Tam, Yim Ho, Alex Cheung, and Allen Fong, with filmmakers who emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s categorized as a Second Wave (Stanley Kwan, Mabel Cheung, Wong Kar-wai, and sometimes Johnnie To and Sylvia Chang). More productively though, I think they can all be grouped together, alongside filmmakers who worked their way through the traditional studio system who emerged at around the same time (Sammo Hung, John Woo, Ching Siu-tung, Yuen Woo-ping, Jackie Chan). All these filmmakers were born between 1945 and 1958 (Yuen, Woo, and Hui are the oldest, Wong and Kwan the youngest) and all frequently collaborated with each other and with the same casts and crew, and all share a revisionist sensibility, one of opposition to the cultural and political status quo, expressed in the breaking down and refashioning of the genre film as a means of exploring the contradictions of contemporary Hong Kong society within mainstream industrial entertainment.1 It’s in this context that Ringo Lam’s best work makes sense: as the most visceral expressions of a kind of generational rage targeted at the corrupt, incompetent and impotent institutions that defined life in Hong Kong as seen on screen in the 1980s. 
Lam2 began his career as an actor, he met Chow Yun-fat in acting school, but soon switched to directing, which he studied at York University in Toronto. Upon his return to Hong Kong, he latched onto the Cinema City Studio, the center of stylish production in the 1980s, founded and run by a trio of comedians (Karl Maka, Dean Shek, and Raymond Wong) and run by a brain trust that included actor-director Eric Tsang, producer Nansun Shi and Tsui Hark. In 1983, Lam was tapped to take over production on a ghost comedy called Esprit d’amour.3 He worked on a few more comedies at the studio (including Happy Ghost III, which was primarily directed by Johnnie To) before being given control of the fourth film in the studio’s extremely successful Aces Go Places series in 1986. The film, which features an incongruously heart-breaking performance from Sylvia Chang (a rare moment of real emotion in a farcical slapstick action-comedy) and a series of impressive vehicle stunts, was a big success and Lam was given carte blanche to make his next project, which became City on Fire.
Utilizing all of Cinema City’s resources in service to a story about an undercover cop who gets In Too Deep on One Last Job with a gang of jewel thieves, Lam had himself a monster hit. Building off the success of Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, released six months earlier, City on Fire cemented Chow Yun-fat as the biggest star of his era. His performance is electric: constantly in motion, ever-wary of the forces closing in around him, desperately wanting to escape but conspired against by fate, the police, the gang and even his impatient girlfriend at every turn. He’s matched with Danny Lee, the most competent member of the gang who believes he’s found a kindred spirit, and a true friend, in Chow. Lee and Chow are terrific together, as they would be again in Woo’s The Killer (1989), with an easy camaraderie that belies the fact that they really only become friends in the film’s final third. More than simply resting on star performances or action scenes, however, City on Fire is more alive to the streets of Hong Kong than any film before or since. Captured on the fly by cinematographer Andrew Lau (who had worked by Lau Kar-leung and Sammo Hung and would the next year shoot Wong Kar-wai-wai’s debut As Tears Go By and eventually the first half of Chungking Express before launching his own directorial career with the Young and Dangerous and Infernal Affairs films), we see the crowded, teeming streets overflowing with commerce teetering ever-so-easily into violence. The opening shots of a make-shift outdoor mall become the scene of a brutal assassination, white scrims separating vendors’ stalls spattered with bright red blood. The camera hustles along with Chow, moving anxiously across the streets, down alleys, into empty spaces hoping to elude pursuit. The climactic heist takes place at night, on a street full of jewelry stores, open late for the Christmas season, erupting in a moment into bullets and mayhem in images as carefully chaotic as the city itself.
Woo found some of this same energy in the city, of course, but he smoothed it out, stitching scenes of existential trauma together with Cantonese pop in drifting montages of rainy neon and tearful anguish. Lam’s films prowl the streets at ground-level, scored by Teddy Robin Kwan’s rock n’ roll, meaty guitars, primal screams and sultry saxophones. Tarantino’s movie too is a very different animal. Though he lifted a handful of shots and the basic premise of Lam’s film, his movie, with its stage-like warehouse setting, disquisitions on Method acting and convoluted story structure, is more about making a movie than it is about any particular idea, let alone any particular place (unless that place is the part of Los Angeles that only considers the making of movies to be the real world). Lam’s violence was not movie violence, it was the violence of everyday life: of men and women caught up in a machine they could not control and in which they had no say. 
This becomes ever more starkly apparent in his next two films, Prison on Fire, which followed later in 1987, and School on Fire, from 1988. Prison stars Chow a the veteran prisoner helping show new inmate Tony Leung Ka-fai (the Other Tony Leung) the ropes against the whims of sadistic guard Roy Cheung (who had played the vicious young cop in City on Fire). Its vision of the prison as microcosm of Hong Kong society is bluntly effective, with moments of harrowing violence and eruptive joy, a Zéro de conduite for the grindhouse crowd. An unrelated sequel, Prison on Fire II, followed a few years later, with Chow in the role of the new guy in prison. School on Fire is arguably Lam’s best film, though it remains one of the most difficult to find nowadays. Starring Fennie Yuen, who had shined in Cinema City’s Happy Ghost films as the leader of teen girls in their encounters with teachers and with more supernatural characters, stars as a quiet girl who finds herself enmeshed in an ever-deepening pit of impossible choices, wedged between high schoolers who have linked up with the local Triads (led by Roy Cheung, in the finest performance of his career) and the police, who force her to testify against the gangs. Piece by piece she is dismantled by the world around her, pushed into acts both cathartically violent (literally setting the school on fire) and romantic (finding young love with a similarly traumatized, yet still honorable, Triad), but ultimately finding solace in neither. People try to help her: a teacher, her father, older Triads who have some respect for children and honor, but all are impotent. It’s a world without hope and Lam burns it to the ground. 
But crucially, unlike the nihilist teen dramas of the first flowering of the New Wave (Yim Ho’s The Happening, Tsui Hark’s Dangerous Encounters—First Kind, Patrick Tam’s Nomad), School on Fire is not resigned to despair and hopelessness, and is not an omnidirectional cry of anguish at a world gone wrong. Instead, it is specific in its indictments, painstakingly outlining the ways in which the institutions that are designed to protect and assimilate the poor kids of the slum neighborhoods of Hong Kong: the family, the schools, the police, even ad hoc criminal community groups like the Triads, have utterly failed to meet their responsibilities. Society in Lam’s films is not an impersonal array of negative forces that cannot be controlled, nor are his characters guided by fate to their tragic and heroic ends, as in the works of John Woo and Johnnie To. Rather, they are a product of specific decisions and failures, of a material reality that can, necessarily, therefore be changed and improved. The pessimism, the apocalyptic tone of Lam’s cinema, comes from the fact that while people can choose to make the world better, they repeatedly choose not to do so.
This bleak perspective finds its fullest expression in the early 1990s, with 1992’s Full Contact and, to a lesser extent, 1994’s Burning Paradise in Hell, a wuxia that stands as Lam’s only period film. Both films are maximalist expressions of their genre, with the latter, alongside Ronny Yu’s The Bride with White Hair, leading the way to Tsui Hark’s The Blade, the blackest vision of wuxia yet committed to film. It’s incongruously mixed with a lot of lowbrow humor, though, and is notably lacking in star power. The same cannot be said for Full Contact, which features Chow Yun-fat in his most Robert Mitchum-esque performance as a bouncer who, in helping out his buddy Anthony Wong, runs afoul of a criminal boss in Thailand. Hoping to settle things, they join up with Wong’s cousin, a flamboyant thief played by Simon Yam, who in turn is hired to kill Chow and his friends. At the crucial moment, Wong switches sides, and so, when Chow inevitably returns after being left for dead, he has a lot of revenging to do. Playing like Point Blank on very bad acid, Full Contact is a riot of color and gore and lunacy. Yam’s villain, named The Judge, is one of the great actor’s most memorable creations: he does magic tricks, he’s mesmerized by Chow’s eyes, he wears reptile-skin suits, he fires very large and very small guns. Essentially post-apocalyptic, there are no institutions of note in Full Contact, nothing to indict because everyone is on their own. The only tragedy is in personal betrayal: Chow is double-crossed by his friend, who then takes up with Chow’s girlfriend, who finds it breathtakingly easy to fall in with another man. 
Full Contact is, like Woo’s Hard-Boiled, released the same year and featuring the same two stars (Chow and Wong), a hyperbolization of its director’s 1980s work, bringing out the excesses of the Heroic Bloodshed genre they had pioneered and elevating their decadence to a kind of art. Both directors soon found their way to Hollywood, where they would work with Jean-Claude Van Damme (who also worked with Tsui Hark and had his first impact on screen in a villain role in Corey Yuen’s 1985 No Retreat, No Surrender). Lam’s three Van Damme films are of interest primarily for their solid stunt work, as always Lam was the master of the modern car chase, finding more creative ways to film vehicles crashing into fruit stands than any director ever has before or since. Lam also finds new depths in Van Damme as a performer, bringing out the sadness in his stone face while emphasizing his Keaton-esque potential as a physical actor. Replicant (2001) in particular highlights this quality, with Van Damme’s childlike clone performing complex stunts almost by accident, manipulating his body and his environment with an ostensible lack of intention and effort. In both Replicant and Maximum Risk (1996), Lam doubles Van Damme: he plays twins in the later and the villain and his clone in the former. In In Hell (2003), which might as well have been called Prison on Fire III, Van Damme plays a regular guy who gets himself sentenced to a Russian prison (the inmates are an incongruously multinational melange, and include no less than Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor). The brutality of the prison and its management eventually push Van Damme into a personality change, where he becomes a champion fighter (the transformation is signaled by a haircut and the growing of an evil twin goatee). Thus in every film Van Damme is ultimately at war with himself, one side representing his innocent, idealistic, everyman side, while the other his darkest, most violent urges. They are never successfully reconciled. 
Unlike Woo, Chow, Jet Li, Jackie Chan and other Hong Kong emigrés in 1990s Hollywood, Ringo Lam never stopped working in Asia. His last great film, 1997’s Full Alert, was set on the eve of the Handover and is simultaneously a goodbye to the Hong Kong of the Heroic Bloodshed period and a look ahead to where the colony’s cinema would go in the coming decades. Lau Ching-wan plays a very tired cop on the trail of a gang of thieves led by Francis Ng, an engineer who knows how to break into bank vaults, and frequent Hou Hsiao-hsien star Jack Kao, who wants to make as much money as he can before fleeing the Handover back to the relative safety of Taiwan (as such it forms a perfect bookend with Johnny Mak’s 1984 Long Arm of the Law, about thieves who want to steal as much as they can from Hong Kong before fleeing back to the Mainland). Ng and Lau form a classic cop/criminal pair, united by the fact that they’re both haunted by the memory of men they’ve killed. This paralyzing trauma, the inability to process the violence they’ve been a part of both humanizes them and links them in a perversion of the cop/crook relationships of Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee (or Chow and Tony Leung in Hard-Boiled), which are built not on looking backward towards death but forward toward a hoped-for release from violence, and shared belief that there is a right way to kill, as long as it follows a code of honor and justice. For Lau and Ng, such abstract notions are irrelevant: it is the tangible fact of violence that haunts them, the why of the deaths are irrelevant. Full Alert is in many respects of a piece with the crime thrillers Johnnie To would produce at his Milkyway Image studio, beginning the next year with Lau playing a similar character in Expect the Unexpected. But the Milkyway films are always somewhat removed from reality. For as much as To’s films are filled with the day-to-day life and rituals of Hong Kong, they are always more about the movies themselves than the are about the real world. They’re less immediate than Ringo Lam’s street-level explorations of the city’s underbelly. They’re films about films and ideas or films about ideas of films rather than films about a specific place at a specific time.
Ringo Lam spent about 20 years as an active director. In 2003, alongside In Hell he directed its polar opposite, a bright, ridiculous and utterly delightful action rom-com called Looking for Mr. Perfect for Milkyway Image. Shu Qi plays a Hong Kong cop who, after killing a crook in a shootout (she’s haunted by images of the dead man in the same way Lau and Ng were in Full Alert), goes on vacation with her best friend, an aspiring model. The two get mixed up with a lascivious agent (Lam Suet), a goofy pickpocket (Chapman To), a pair of secret agents (hunky Andy On and goofy Hui Shiu-hung) and a gang of thieves led by Simon Yam, apparently reprising his Full Contact role but with even more finger-snapping and tap-dancing flamboyance. It’s maybe the slightest, least serious thing Lam ever produced, but it’s utterly charming. After a career full of acid-throwing excoriations of the status quo, it’s a laidback lark of a movie, its fight scenes and car chases turned from angsty expressions of rage into the purity of cartoon, of clownishness for its own sake.  
Aside from a third of the multidirector experiment Triangle (made with To and Tsui) in 2007, Lam didn’t direct again until 2015, choosing instead to spend time with his family. When he came back, it was with Wild City, a solid thriller with a good Louis Koo performance and, naturally, some excellent car chases. His last film, Sky on Fire (2016), was a disappointment, a garbled screenplay and subpar CGI hampering what could have been a compelling attack on the pharmaceutical industry. In the end, Ringo Lam wasn’t as consistently great as the best of his contemporaries, Woo and Tsui, To and Wong. He made a few bad films and a lot of solid to mediocre ones. But his best work, City on Fire and School on Fire, Full Contact and Full Alert, is as vital, as alive, as powerful as anything anyone of his generation ever made.

1. This is in contrast to their contemporaries in the New Taiwanese Cinema, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Wu Nien-jen, Chu T’ien-wen, who emerged at the same time in a far less developed film industry and adopted a more esoteric style, one that was, for good or ill, beholden more to fashionable international art house movies than popular commercial cinema.
2. In an interview in the book Hong Kong Babylon, he explained how he got his English name. “Years ago, I went to a party and met a girl who asked me if I had an English name. I said I didn’t have any. So she said, I like the Beatles—what about I name you Ringo? I said fine. I like the Beatles too.”
3. Lam replaced director Po-Chih Leong, who had co-directed with Josephine Siao the ground-breaking proto-New Wave crime drama Jumping Ash in 1976.


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