Ringo Lam was one of the first Hong Kong celebrities to make a foray into Udine’s Cinema Ferroviario in April 1998, which was transformed into a Chinese pagoda for the occasion. About ten years before meeting him in person at one of his favourite restaurants in Kowloon, Hong Kong, I discovered some of his films in squalid London backstreet movie theatres specialising in exotic action and horror flicks. Quentin Tarantino had already made various nods to Ringo Lam’s work in his debut film Reservoir Dogs. Asian film buffs such as Pierre Rissient and Derek Elley adored the desperate sagas directed by Lam, but they never made it to international festivals.
We got to know Lam, as well as Johnnie To, Yim Ho, Wong Kar-wai, Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, Peter Chan, Fruit Chan and their other colleagues just as the notorious handover was looming, the return of the British colony to China. An “end of the world” scenario that filmmakers obsessively debated among themselves and in public, expressing not only their fears of censorship, dictatorial impositions, strangulation of the local film industry, but often also hopes for new opportunities, wider horizons, an injection of fresh ideas and blood.
Twenty years later, unfortunately, the pessimists turned out to have been right. Instead of upping and moving to Beijing or Hollywood, in the new millennium Ringo Lam chose the path of silence, almost disappearing completely from the film horizon. When we interviewed him in 2001 with Hubert Niogret for our Hong Kong Cinema reportage, the director declared himself to be retired, with no plans or regrets. As a refined intellectual he reflected on the future, he wondered whether films would one day be projected onto thin air rather than a screen, and whether viewers would themselves be the protagonists of the films.
“The Chinese have different minds, it is very different from the West, we have a kind of philosophy. Our definition of justice, family, values, is so much different from the West. It seems to me that all the Western movies are based on sciences and logic. If you look at many Chinese movies, they are more mental, mind things, not explained by science. Now we have fairytale stories. In the old days, we believed we had a kind of Gorgon, that we could raise a building without a crane, simply by hand. We are talking about psychic power, but if you tell a story to a Western audience, they will say it is all lies. Different mentalities, we were raised differently.”
Ringo Lam left us two testaments, one on film and one on paper.
Sky on Fire (2016), from its very title evokes the pamphlets that were a kaleidoscope of controversy, focused on macroscopic social dysfunctions, under British rule, of schools, cities, prisons. A permanent chaos that the director undoubtedly liked. But the order imposed from the top of a thousand-storey skyscraper managed by a malevolent pharmaceutical industry drove him crazy. Lam saw this architectural monster as the core business of Chinese capitalism. Meandering from one curve to another in the story, he couldn’t wait to see it become a towering inferno. Staging with Wagnerian emphasis the greatest of his conclusive holocausts, Ringo Lam mocked us as he took his revenge, letting rip with the drums, just like his beloved Ringo Starr: let everyone die in hell!
The following text on Ringo Lam was published in The Ultimate Guide to Hong Kong Film Directors, 1979-2013, edited by Freddie Wong Kwok-shiu, Hong Kong Film Directors Guild, 2014, p. 387.
“When I was a director many people were taken aback by my hard-line determination and my unyielding opinions. But I’d never regretted the way I handled matters. With that said, I would like to thank everyone who had helped to bring my films to fruition! My attitude towards filmmaking could be summed up as ‘giving all my heart and soul.’ Only films made under such a mindset would allow me to express myself while documenting my thoughts and feelings at that particular period. When I watch my films, I can see the trajectory of my personal growth. Reminiscing about the arduous and complicated behind-the-scene stories are a lot more meaningful than the film itself. Even if there were to be more people on this earth, we still would not find two of the same. My thoughts and ideas have their own unique ways. Hence as long as I treat filmmaking with authenticity and honesty, I believe the singular qualities of my films will shine through. That is the basic step of my creative process. Enough said, let’s watch movies!”