Born in 1955, Lam was drawn to the arts at a young age. At age 18, he enrolled in the Shaw Bros. Acting Training Program at the former TVP television studio. This course was the television branch of the famed Shaw Bros. studio who are best known for producing an uncountable number of martial arts films throughout the seventies. This class was also where Lam met a personal friend and a future star in Chow Yun-Fat. The two were known to be quite the roustabouts and stories of their partying ways are legendary, so much so that a particular night of infamy they shared has gone on to become cinematic history. In the John Woo films A Better Tomorrow and A Bullet in the Head, there are sequences that either talk about (A Better Tomorrow) or feature (A Bullet in the Head) scenes where characters are forced to drink urine. This actually came from the lives of Ringo Lam and Chow Yun-Fat who were hanging around rougher neighborhoods in Hong Kong and came across some local Triads who gave the two some pretty heavy grief!
Soon Lam decided that acting was not his forte and that his place was to be behind the camera, in light of this he emigrated to Canada and enrolled at York University in Toronto. Although he didn’t graduate, Lam learned from his time in Canada and left for Hong Kong once again in 1981. It was here that Lam would cut his teeth in the cinematic world and go on to do his most memorable work. He, along with Tsui Hark and John Woo, formed a new movement in Hong Kong cinema and helped change the curve for years to come. Things didn’t start off easily however, being a fresh face in the business meant that his choices for projects were fairly slim and the creative control offered to him was limited. With his first directorial role he was brought in to work as assistant director for the Cinema City ghost-comedy project: Espirit D’Amour (1983) which soon ran into trouble when director Leung Po Chi was let go, and Ringo was tapped to step in as director. Why Leung Po Chi (famed director of Hong Kong 1941) left the project is uncertain. It is said that he either came down ill or producer Karl Maka didn’t like the dailies that he was seeing. Regardless, Lam finished the project and after this there were a couple of other comedies (The Other Side of Gentleman – 1984, Love God Number One – 1985) followed by his entry into the wildly popular Aces Go Places series, which were kind of like a Hong Kong James Bond film collection, that were riding their peak at the time. Lam directed Aces Go Places 4: You Never Die Twice and had another very successful feature on his hands. This gave him a little more credibility within the industry and lead to Karl Maka giving him the leeway to make whatever kind of picture he so desired.
City on Fire would turn out to be one of Lam’s most celebrated films, and in league for being one of the best Hong Kong films of the 1980’s. The film saw Lam teaming up with his school mate Chow Yun-Fat once again, with him taking the starring role as an undercover police officer who finds himself with a pack of jewel thieves. Playing opposite to Chow Yun-Fat was Danny Lee, who played one of the jewel thieves who becomes close friends with Chow’s character. Lee at the time was most commonly seen by audiences on the side of the law, as he was well known for playing police officers – but Lam decided to cast him against type as just another kink for the audience to deal with. The film explored the themes of loyalty and betrayal and painted the world in very broad grey strokes, where the complexities of friendship prevent things from being black and white. The film would come back and burst into the American consciousness whenever <>Quentin Tarantino’s film Reservoir Dogs would be called into question for possibly stealing material from Ringo Lam’s classic feature. Another independent filmmaker named Mike White, who is the creator of Cashiers du Cinemart magazine, would make waves for the expose when he made a ten minute short film that edited Reservoir Dogs with the final half hour of City on Fire to dramatic effect.
After the success of City on Fire, Lam decided to make a series out of the title and followed his film up with Prison on Fire. A sequel only in the likeness of the name, this prison drama (once again starring Chow Yun-Fat) focused again on the loyalties of friendship and brotherhood under intense situations. Intensity would be an apt description for the entire project however, as it was shot and edited in only three weeks time due to a hectic schedule. Lam, who has never been the easiest man to please on set from all accounts, was even more neurotic and sensational for the filming of Prison.. which left him with a reputation that follows him to this day. Despite all of the hardships, the film proved to be a hit with critics as well as local audiences and so Lam decided to follow it up once again with School on Fire. Unfortunately, he would not find the same success with this outing – as the content of the film had him in hot water due to the levels of violence and grittiness of the picture. Dealing with school students being forced into prostitution and riled up youthful triads persecuting their teachers, it was a pretty bitter pill for some audiences. Producers wanted less glamorization of the Triad lifestyle, the audience wanted more action and thus the project was doomed. Despite it being received poorly at the box office, the film has survived over the years on its own merit and can be considered one of his best films.
Following up the commercial disappointment of School on Fire, Undeclared War (1990) was an international film that did quite bad for its larger budget. Financially Lam continued to hit tough times as Touch and Go (1991) underperformed despite it being a Sammo Hung vehicle, who was quite popular. Then his two pairings with Chow Yun-Fat were only moderately successful. Those films being Wild Search (1989) and the more melodramatic but fast paced sequel Prison on Fire II (1991). Lam did however co-direct the popular Jackie Chan action-comedy Twin Dragons (1992) around this time, which saw Chan playing two versions of himself opposite Maggie Cheung. The film was made as a fund raising effort by the Hong Kong Director’s Guild and featured several collaborators, so it’s hard to gauge just how involved Lam was with the film. It is said Tsui Hark handled the more comedic scenes, where Lam handled the more serious and action oriented sequences. Sure enough though, it was a box office hit in Hong Kong. However, Lam would soon find any success from that being embroiled in controversy after he made a slightly negative remark in the aftermath of the Tienanmen Square massacre.
Lam’s comments came about in the wake of the horrible massacre at Tienanmen Square, when all of China still felt like they were reeling from the tragedy. Lam’s comments, while likely not intended to be insulting or offensive, were taken that way. He essentially claimed that he felt it was time to move on and that events such as the Dragon Boat festival shouldn’t have been canceled. The quote was then held over the director’s head and he even received death threats sent to his offices. Lam took a vacation but was eventually lured back out by his good friend Chow Yun-Fat who specifically asked that Lam be brought in as director for his next project: Full Contact. At the time Chow had been making films with John Woo and had several extremely popular titles and series under his belt, so when he asked for something it was generally done. Lam took the project which was a Hong Kong takeoff on the Lee Marvin revenge film Point Blank. It saw the usually squeaky clean or debonair Chow Yun-Fat playing a dirtier, grittier sort of criminal who was left to die by his partners but manages to survive some how. When this character wakes up from his coma, he sets off on a path towards vengeance. Brutally violent, incredibly stylish and easily one of the best films from the Heroic Bloodshed subgenre of Hong Kong action films – it was a massive hit internationally if not domestically.
Burning Paradise (1994) was given the green light and was Lam’s next film and although it didn’t make back all of it’s budget, which was considerable for a Hong Kong film at the time, it did prove to be an impressive and interesting feature. Lam created his own version of the period film – by throwing in decapitations, blood spray and some interesting wuxia style swordplay. Although a failure at the box office, the film its self wasn’t a disaster. Great Adventurers (1995) was next up for the filmmaker and saw Lam openly battling his star Andy Lau. Lau received an outrageous figure for the time to do the picture, $1.5 million dollars it is said, which Lam felt hurt the picture because it ate up a considerable amount of the budget – leaving Lam without the tools to accurately tell the story. Although these are all just rumors, it is also said that Lau ignored Lam’s direction while on set and that the two did not get along at all. Perhaps it was this drama and resentment that had Lam accept the call from Hollywood, as his next project was the Jean Claude Van Damme picture Maximum Risk in North America. This experience didn’t turn out to be any more pleasant however, as Lam didn’t enjoy his experience with Jean Claude either (going so far as to tell the actor he “couldn’t act for s**t”!) and when the film didn’t test well with audiences, it was taken out of his hands and re-edited. Lam left Hollywood in the wake of these things and focused on work back in Hong Kong.
Ringo Lam hit another stride with his following two films; the absolutely brilliant Full Alert (1997) and the low key thriller The Victim (1999). Full Alert turned out to be a big hit locally as well as on the festival circuit, as it was just the right amalgamation of his gritty and urbane crime tales with enough visual punch to surprise even the most hearty of skeptics. The Victim, which didn’t do as well financially, was an equally impressive smaller film that saw Lam trying his hand at the supernatural thriller. Lam has continued to work since then, despite his spat with Jean Claude Van Damme, he has since worked with the filmmaker two other times (on In Hell – 2003 and Wake of Death – 2004). His most recent project was the three way directorial teamup of Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark and Johnnie To on Triangle. Although the film hasn’t found critical success, it’s interesting for the historical mix of these directors if nothing else.
Although he doesn’t have the flare and action of a John Woo or the hip and youthful mix of a Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam remains just as impressive a figure from the Hong Kong film world. Perhaps even more impressive, as his films never really played into what the audience expected or wanted. He has his ups and he has his downs, but regardless of what the film is – if you go into a Ringo Lam picture; you know it has to be different. Whether subversive and nihilistic or gritty but with a hint of reluctant hope – the film world in which he crafts is unlike anything any other filmmaker could hope to achieve. A director who is due for a resurgence in popularity and I ask that you help bring it about, by picking up one of his films in the near future.
— Joshua Samford
AMC TV Biography
City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema