One of Hong Kong’s most iconic directors, Ringo Lam trained at television station TVB as an actor before realizing that he was “not as handsome as Chow Yun-fat” and becoming a producer. He went to Toronto’s York University where he spent three years studying film, then returned to Hong Kong with a recommenda- tion from his friend, director Tsui Hark, where he joined revolutionary production company, Cinema City. His first movies were all romances and comedies (Esprit D’amour, The Other Side of Gentleman, Cupid One, Aces Go Places IV, and Happy Ghost III) but after Cupid One flopped at the box office he figured his career was over. Instead, one of Cinema City’s founders gave him a low budget and told him to shoot whatever he wanted. Fascinated by the robbery of the Time Watch Company, which resulted in a shootout with the police, Lam attended the trial and then made City on Fire (1987). Unsure of how to make an action movie, Lam relied on instinct, and the result was one of Hong Kong’s most iconic films.
It did well at the box office, and Lam decided to team up with Chow Yun-fat again, this time with Prison on Fire (1987) based on a script written by himself and his brother, Nam Yin, who fueled their fire with tales of his under- world buddies. The movie became a massive hit with lines stretching around the block, and Lam seemed unstoppable. But then came School on Fire (1988), a damning indictment of Hong Kong’s school system and social services. The local censors refused to approve it for release unless 30 cuts were made, which Lam reluctantly executed. The hobbled movie was blasted for its pessimistic portrayal of Hong Kong, but is now considered a classic.
Scarred by the experience, Lam started experimenting with his style, making the romantic cop movie Wild Search (1989), which was a riff on Peter Weir’s Witness. Then he made Full Contact (1992), teaming up again with Chow Yun- fat. Fueled by thick licks of hardcore style, the film is, as Lam says, “just crazy enough to work” and it’s become another action classic. He also made a successful Prison on Fire sequel, a martial arts movie (Burning Paradise, produced by Tsui Hark), and Maximum Risk (1996) starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (about working in Hollywood, which he’s done on two more Van Damme projects, Lam says, “They always insist on happy endings and stereotyped heroes, which are so uninteresting.”)
In 1997, Ringo Lam made his last truly important movie, Full Alert, which was, as he says, not just a big action film but also his attempt “to record how Hong Kong looked before the takeover. The narrow alleys, Bird Street, Central, and Causeway Bay…Bird Street has already been demolished. Full Alert is the last film to be shot there.” Although it was a box office dis- appointment, it was nominated for five Hong Kong Film Awards and won Best Film and Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Critic Society Awards. Lam followed it with a big budget adventure movie (The Suspect), a horror movie (The Victim), and a lighthearted caper flick (Looking for Mr. Perfect). Then, in 2003, he stopped making feature films and, except for directing a sequence of the three-part movie, Triangle (2007), with Tsui Hark and Johnnie To, he hasn’t made a movie since. Until now.