Cinema Scope

Man on Fire

“I didn’t intentionally try to reinforce the optimism in my films. All I can say is some of the central characters get the chance to survive at the end. However, the continued survival of these people won’t change a thing. The world still runs its course.”
—Ringo Lam in a 2014 interview

Nicknamed the “dark-faced god” of Hong Kong filmmaking for his tantrum-throwing intensity and restrictive regime on set, Ringo Lam has proven mortal after all. One of the greatest directors of car chases, conflicted characters, and society coming apart at the seams, Lam died in the last days of 2018 at age 63, while resting at home with a cold. His early death cut short a somewhat beleaguered career just as he was getting back on track: Lam had just returned to filmmaking three years earlier, following a prolonged absence motivated by his dissatisfaction with the state of Hong Kong cinema and an unwillingness to conform to the dictates of box-office pressures, opting in 2003 to dedicate time to his family.

Although Lam remained one of the most respected writer-directors in what has been known as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China since July 1, 1997, his brutally passionate films—full of ambivalent characters, streetwise violence, and subversive notions—often proved too unwieldy and “unglamorous” for financial success. His repeated attempts to corner the international market were either troubled productions or, in the case of his three US-backed outings with Jean-Claude Van Damme, wrongheadedly dismissed as underwhelming action-star vehicles. On the contrary, these films not only deepen some of the themes Lam had explored in his home-grown outings, but also bring out the darkest and most melancholy aspects of the Van Damme persona while still delivering the action goods in impressively straightforward, no-nonsense set pieces.

It’s thus that Lam’s popular and critical reputation was mostly (and somewhat undeservedly) based on his breakthrough period, starting with City on Fire (1987)—which is unfortunately often reduced to “the film that inspired Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992)”—and continuing through the local hit Prison on Fire (1987) and the export smash Full Contact (1992), all of which coasted on the glamour of freshly minted (1986) superstar Chow Yun-fat. A decade earlier, Chow had been in the same acting class as Lam, and he would grace the director’s unflinching vision with a charismatic energy and easygoing charm even as the characters he played endured multiple bruisings in the name of their convictions.

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