When director Ringo Lam suddenly passed away last December, aged 63, filmmakers and cinephiles mourned the loss of one of Hong Kong cinema’s great masters. A key maker of thrillers in the 1980s and ‘90s, and with his most recent finished work, Sky on Fire, having hit screens in 2016, Lam had been renowned for his uncompromising take on crime and prison tales as well as his exacting standards on the set.
Major works by Lam had become canonical by the early 1990s, when a new wave of interest in Hong Kong cinema exploded internationally, and his obituaries named the highlights, not least among them City on Fire (1987). And with mention of that landmark film came comment on one particular aspect of Lam’s influence: the famed link between City on Fire and Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut feature Reservoir Dogs.
Lam arrived at City on Fire after taking a big step up in his filmmaking career. Having started out as an actor and then assistant director in TV, Lam became a director for the small screen in 1976. Two years later, he moved to Toronto to study film in York University before returning in 1982. Lam soon became a key talent at Cinema City, a film company churning out hits across genres and supporting rising talents. He made his directorial debut with the ghost romance Esprit d’Amour (1983) and later hit big with the action comedy Aces Go Places IV (1986). But Cinema City co-founder Karl Maka suspected such lighter fare wasn’t really Lam’s thing, and gave the director a free hand for his next work, albeit on a modest budget.
The result was City on Fire, with Lam gunning for grittiness in a story inspired by a local jewellery store heist. Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee head the cast – Chow playing undercover cop Ko Chow and Lee handling the role of Tiger, a toughie high up in the gang of thieves Ko infiltrates. The robbers are first seen as they raid a jewellery factory, and the police response runs two ways. Veteran inspector Lau (Sun Yueh) secretly sends in his friend Ko – already deep undercover following an earlier operation – as his mole, while a young hotshot cop (Roy Cheung) has his plainclothes officers pound the streets (and inevitably get on Ko’s trail). As the gang prepares for an audacious jewellery heist, Ko and Tiger develop a bond despite Ko’s painful memories of selling out a previous underworld partner and the immense peril he faces.
Action scenes in City on Fire are fierce affairs, from chaotic robberies to car stunts to bloody gun battles. But the heart of the picture sits in its human relationships. Ko Chow is torn not only in a growing friendship with Tiger, but also in his loyalty to Lau (after all, he wants out of being undercover) and in his relationship with girlfriend Hung (Carrie Ng), whom he worries could end up a widow.
Quentin Tarantino puts aside such emotional depth in Reservoir Dogs and, surprisingly for a heist film, there isn’t even a robbery scene – just its lead-up and the bloody aftermath. The story sees a gang of six brought together and prepped for a Los Angeles jewellery store robbery. Despite tight plans, the caper falls apart and surviving gang members flee for a mortician’s warehouse to regroup. First to arrive are veteran Mr White (Harvey Keitel) and heavily bleeding Mr Orange (Tim Roth), followed by Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi) and mad dog Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen), who brings with him a captured cop. It’s clear there’s a rat in the ranks, and gang members want to know just who it is.
Premiered in Sundance, then shown in Cannes, Reservoir Dogs won acclaim for Tarantino’s fresh approach to crime, its nimble time-shifting and its sharp, hip and almost incessant chatter, heavy on cool quips and popcult references. But admirers of City on Fire saw more than a passing resemblance to Lam’s film.
For starters, both films zero in on the pairing of a mole and a thief, with the cop coursing through moral grey areas along the way. Many plot details are echoed too: In each film a gang is hired by a mastermind to hit a jewellery store and the men carry fake names, and in both cases the well-planned robbery goes wrong when an alarm goes off and a hot-headed robber opens fire. Plus, each time the cops have been tipped off and are waiting to pounce. (In City on Fire, the robbery and its getaway play out in brutal detail; for Reservoir Dogs, the heist is simply described.)
Surviving thieves in both movies make messy escapes, in both cases with a hoodlum at one point firing with two guns through a police car windshield, and in each film the undercover cop shoots from the gang’s side (Ko opens fire on a policeman; his Dogs counterpart guns down a woman to commandeer her car). Once clear of the crime scenes, they all head for warehouses, where speculation mounts over why the cops were waiting and just who is the mole. The two films see tension peak when the bosses walk into the warehouses and Mexican standoffs ensue, and in each finale the undercover cop and his hoodlum pal, one gravely injured, show how close their bonds have become. As the Hong Kong and LA police move in, ultimately the gists of what the two pairs of men say are pretty much the same.
Film buffs pounced. Coverage in UK film magazine Empire and fanzines like Toronto’s Asian Eye spelled out the case, and a 10-minute video did the rounds on VHS with the two-films’ similarities laid out onscreen. The matter even dogged Tarantino in the Cannes press conference for his Palme d’Or-winning Pulp Fiction (1994) before going on to reach mainstream dailies. Stoking the ire was a feeling that Lam simply wasn’t getting due credit. (Chow Yun-fat, not Lam, had been thanked as a source of inspiration in the Dogs screenplay.) By 1995, Tarantino was finally addressing the accusations directly, telling The Baltimore Sun on City on Fire, “It’s a really cool movie. It influenced me a lot. I got some stuff from it.” As a footnote, Tarantino wasn’t the only one on the film with a Hong Kong connection. Executive producer Monte Hellman had actually shot most of the Shaw Brothers-Hammer film Shatter in Hong Kong in the 1970s (though the film is credited to producer Michael Carreras).
To be sure, cinema is stuffed with filmmakers drawing on the work of others. Lam himself had looked to The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) when planning his shift to grittier fare. And Tarantino is renowned for his fandom, having absorbed reels upon reels of wildly diverse filmmaking and zealously feeding countless influences into his own work. The question inevitably raised, however, is where homage and creative reworking end and plagiarism begins.
For my part, I’ll call the two pictures vastly different beasts. Almost all of what Tarantino drew on played in just the final 17 minutes of Lam’s film. City on Fire is a complex work playing out across its city, deeply romantic, and packing a strong emotional punch. And it meshes with Hong Kong cinema traditions, whether in echoing the conflicted leads from ‘70s wuxia films, in its place within Hong Kong’s “heroic bloodshed” cinema and undercover cop films, or in the ways it reflected the local social mood. Yes, Reservoir Dogs draws unmistakeably on City on Fire, but the film runs on its own stagey rhythms and thrives on Tarantino’s hip dialogue, and it shook up and stripped down American crime cinema traditions to deliver a striking new form.
Eventually the Reservoir Dogs – City on Fire kerfuffle lost steam. Lam shrugged off the matter in interviews and kept on focusing on his craft, including helming the masterful thriller Full Alert (1997). Tarantino busied himself preparing far bigger (and this time totally overt) plays on his Hong Kong influences in the Kill Bill duology (2003 and 2004). And filmmakers back in Hong Kong even closed a circle by blatantly copying from Reservoir Dogs for Hero of City (Alan Lo, 2001), starring none other than Danny Lee.
In the broader picture, Tarantino’s reuse of parts of City on Fire keyed in with a renewed international enthusiasm for Hong Kong cinema then well under way at the start of the 1990s. (An earlier wave hit in the 1970s with the territory’s martial arts cinema.) Festival screenings and features in cinephile journals spurred interest on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s, special screenings and touring shows had sprung up around 1990 in the US, and devotees were following fanzine evangelism to visit Chinatown theatres and hunt for hard-to-find tapes and laserdiscs. Hollywood showed an interest, too, with Hong Kong cues trickling into action flicks. Soon enough top Hong Kong filmmakers, Lam included, were making movies in the US.
Amid all this – and whether Hong Kong cinema die-hards at the time liked it or not – Reservoir Dogs played a key role in bringing Ringo Lam’s cinema to a far bigger audience. City on Fire had deservedly won recognition at home – it earned Best Director and Best Actor (for Chow) at the 1988 Hong Kong Film Awards – but it was still an obscurity outside Asia. If it took the movie’s surprise US connection to push it into the wider film-buff consciousness and further lift both Lam’s profile and the Hong Kong cinema brand, then all the better.