by Stefan Hammond
When the famed skyline was a wet concrete dream, when Hong Kong was a Crown Colony, its urban residents roamed narrow streets oft controlled by triads. The story goes like this: in the 60s, a teen named Lam Lin-tung sought to impress a local woman, and when she asked his English name, the young man blurted out the coolest one he could think of: “Ringo.”
The film oeuvre of Ringo Lam, who died this weekend, reflects the power tectonics of those grime-smeared streets and the men who ruled them. Lam’s breakout film, 1987’s City on Fire, revels in trademark Ringo grit: undercover Hong Kong cop (played by Lamma native Chow Yun-fat) waltzes with bad guy Danny Lee and duels with Royal Hong Kong Police Force bureaucrats amid neon-flamed ambience. The neo-noir thriller kickstarted the career of screen siren Carrie “Naked Killer” Ng and helped cement the post-Shaws presence of Lee. It was nominated for ten Hong Kong Film Awards—Chow and Lam waved Best Actor and Best Director statues by ceremony’s end, and is now on the Hong Kong Film Archive’s list of “Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures.”
More than any other local director at the time, Lam realistically dramatised the activities of the triads while undercutting their celluloid glamorisation. He then lensed Prison on Fire (1987), again starring Chow, to more fame and box-office glory.
Lam’s final 1980s instalment in the “Fire” series—School on Fire, (1988)—is the darkest of the lot. Ringo’s personal bugbear—the Hong Kong school system—is raked over the coals as innocent schoolgirl Chu Yuen-fong (Fennie Yuen) is systematically terrorised by triad kingpin Brother Smart (Roy Cheung at full boil). Ringo shrewdly cast Lam Ching-ying (the eternal sifu of the Mr Vampire films) as a plainclothes cop opposing both gangsters and students who either serve as bottom-feeder gangsters, or pager-summoned callgirls. By film’s end, everything is on fire.
Chow Yun-fat returned as Ringo’s protagonist in 1992’s Full Contact, a crowd-pleasing fuel-burner starring Anthony Wong as Chow’s cohort and Simon Yam in a delicious turn as a flamingly gay homicidal fashion-plate antagonist. The film’s double- and triple-crosses wreak havoc in sun-parched Thai locations and a Hong Kong nightclub, where Chow and Yam’s pistol duel flies ballistically in “bulletcam” as composer Teddy Robin Kwan rips distorted blues riffs between the bullets.
Ringo’s been called the “Dark-faced God” for his intensity on film sets, and I recall that intensity when we met over dim sum at a Kowloon-side eatery in the late 90s. I asked about Undeclared War (1990) and confessed I hadn’t seen it. “Heh,” said Lam, chopsticks reaching for har gau, “don’t bother.”
As for School on Fire, Ringo said that film censors in Taiwan demanded that every scene set within the school itself be cut out of the film. “That final cut runs 65 minutes,” he said, shaking his head.
Full Alert (1997) gave Lam a pair of skilled Hong Kong actors to direct: Francis Ng plays the antagonist while protagonist Pao (Lau Ching-wan) is a perfectionist workaholic cop-in-charge who seems to be channelling Lam himself. Much as Chow did in City on Fire a decade earlier, Lau vents his wrath against police pencil-pushers—mirroring Lam’s opinion of officials who refused to issue filming permits for Hong Kong streets.
The film features a furious chase scene along Hong Kong’s famous double-decker tram-route. The honking autos weave between the tram cars as fellow cop Bill (Chin Ka-lok) screams: “They’re all nuts!” Ringo said much the same of his stunt crew during filming—nobody warned the tram drivers in advance, they just let it rip.
In 1992, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs invoked comparisons to an earlier Ringo Lam film. As Mike Wilkins and I wrote in “Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head”: “While elements of City on Fire were worked into the fabric of Reservoir Dogs, we’re talking apples and oranges here. What’s more important is that both films are excellent modern crime dramas which explore the complex dynamic of cops who have gone so deep undercover that their loyalties twist.”
Sadly, the Reservoir Dogs trivia clunker already perfuses most Ringo obits. When I first interviewed him—via phone in 1996—I apologised for asking: What did he think about this?
“I have been asked this question so many times,” Lam told me. “I don’t think about it.”
Stefan Hammond is co-author (with Mike Wilkins) of “Sex and Zen & A Bullet in The Head: The Essential Guide to Hong Kong’s Mind-bending Films” and author of “Hollywood East: Hong Kong Films and the People who Make Them.” He lives in Hong Kong.