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Simon Yam: Gentleman Psycho

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Having starred in several of the biggest and best Hong Kong hits in recent years, including Wilson Yip's SPL: Sha Po Lang and Johnnie To's Election films, Simon Yam is currently enjoying his time in the sun. Although many viewers are only now discovering his suave charms, he has in no way been an overnight success story. The veteran actor is actually one of the hardest working in Hong Kong, having appeared in more than 125 films and 40 television series in a career spanning almost 30 years. During this time, he has played almost every type of role imaginable, from mob bosses to male prostitutes, and has worked with pretty much all of the industry's biggest directors and stars.

Known for his incredible versatility, Yam has proved equally effective at charming viewers with his natural laid-back charisma and terrifying them in one of his many wide-eyed psycho roles. Whilst it is the latter for which he is probably most recognized amongst Hong Kong film fans, mainly due to his Category III output during the 1990s which rivals that of the legendary Anthony Wong, the actor is gradually becoming more recognized for his craft, having been nominated several times in recent years at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

Yam's talents are not limited to the screen, and he still spends much of his time painting and taking photographs, with some of his works having been published in books. A keen traveller, he has also documented his journeys through Mainland China. Despite his often frightening cinematic personas, the actor is kind-hearted in real life and has donated a great deal of time and money to charity work. While working in Bangkok on the film Full Contact, he adopted a group of Thai street children after seeing their appalling living conditions.

Born in Hong Kong as Yam Tat Wah in 1954, Simon Yam was the son of a policeman, who unfortunately died when he was only 11. Interestingly, in his later life he would be one of the few Hong Kong actors who has, unlike many of his contemporaries, apparently never suffered any trouble from the triads, reportedly due to the fact that his brother is a highly decorated police officer in the O.C.T.B. (Organized Crime and Triad Bureau). Instead of following family tradition, from an early age Yam was more interested in the arts, spending his time painting and taking photographs. While still in high school, he worked as a male model and appeared in a number of television commercials. At the age of 20, he enrolled in acting classes at Hong Kong's famed television studio TVB, where he became great friends with a young Chow Yun Fat.

Whilst under contract with TVB, Yam appeared in a great many television series, including police thrillers, martial arts epics, and soap operas. Several of these, such as A House Is Not a Home and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, saw him working with Chow Yun Fat, and the two actors' careers gradually took off together. During his time with TVB, he also worked alongside many other up-and-coming stars, such as Andy Lau on the series Return of the Condor Heroes, an adaptation of Jin Yong's classic martial arts novel, and Angels and Devils, which saw him onscreen with Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Chow Yun Fat once again.

Yam made his film debut in 1979 with a role in the mob thriller Law Don, though his first proper role came later that year in the soft-core erotic drama House of the Lute. During the early 1980s, he complemented his television work with small parts in a number of films, including the horror outings He Lives by Night and Green Killer.

In 1988 the actor left TVB and began to focus on films, most of which saw him playing triad members or thugs, which led to a widely circulated, though obviously false rumor that he had real-life gang connections, despite his family's police force background. Probably the best of the actor's early films was the 1988 effort Tiger Cage directed by master action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping, a brutal action thriller which also featured martial arts star Donnie Yen and singer Jacky Cheung. The following year, Yam took a minor role in Jackie Chan's misfire Miracles (aka Mr. Canton And Lady Rose), and demonstrated his talent for languages in the Japanese-Hong Kong co-production Bloodfight which, although awful, was interesting for being the first Asian martial arts film to be shot entirely in English.

The new decade saw Yam's career shifting up a gear, beginning with his role in director John Woo's 1990 classic Bullet in the Head. The film saw him play a black marketer in Vietnam War-era Saigon to great acclaim, allowing him to explore far more complex moral territory than he had in the past, as well as giving him another chance to show off his fluency in the English language. The following year was another landmark as the actor earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his work in the gangster drama To Be Number One.

In 1992 he won further acclaim for his performance in director Ringo Lam's explosive Full Contact, in which he played a crazed homosexual ganglord facing off against his old friend Chow Yun Fat. Although the film was not particularly popular in Hong Kong, mainly due to audiences disapproving of the headline star playing a violent criminal, it was a cult hit in the U.S. and Europe and won Yam many fans amongst the growing ranks of Asian cinema fans in the West.

The 1990s was a time of non-stop work for Yam who participated in up to 10 films a year. Like Anthony Wong, Yam appeared in a great many Category III-rated efforts, starting with Danny Lee and Billy Tang's necrophiliac serial killer film Dr. Lamb. Yam, in what must surely have been one of the most difficult roles of his career, plays a maniacal serial murder who strangles, dismembers, then photographs young women. He followed this with a multitude of similarly sleazy outings, including Naked Killer, Naked Killer 2 (which was also released as Raped by an Angel and was directed by future Infernal Affairs and Initial D helmer Andrew Lau), Run and Kill, Insanity, Twist, and Don't Stop My Crazy Love for You to name but a few. Despite, or more likely because of their visceral content, many of these enjoyed considerable box office success, especially the Naked Killer films, which were also hugely popular overseas and helped to boost the actor's profile.

At the same time as starring in such violent fare, Yam also acted in a number of erotic films, such as Gigolo and Whore and its sequel, Street Angels (which also starred a young Shu Qi), and Hong Kong Gigolo. Whilst acting in these films, he gained somewhat of a reputation for being a gentleman, since he was one of the few performers who didn't try to take advantage of actresses while filming sex scenes.

Although Yam certainly carved a niche for himself as one of the decade's top exploitation stars, he also worked on a great many less dubious films, most of which were gritty action thrillers, including the first three chapters of the Young and Dangerous series in which he played crime boss Chiang Tin-Sung. Another notable appearance came in Benny Chan's undercover police thriller Man Wanted which was actually picked up for a Hollywood remake by 20th Century Fox, though nothing seems to have come of this. The actor also turned up in several lightweight comedies such as Rose, Rose I Love You with Tony Leung Ka Fai and the Wong Jing efforts Holy Weapon and Future Cops, the latter being a bizarre slapstick version of the popular Streetfighter video game, which somehow managed to attract an all-star cast including Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, and Aaron Kwok.

Unfortunately, whilst Yam was certainly busy enough through the 1990s, a great many of his film choices were poor, and his career remained in a rut until 1998 when he finally began to take on some more high-profile roles. The first of these was in Hitman, which saw him teaming with Jet Li, one of the biggest martial arts stars in the world. He followed this with lead roles in Ringo Lam's ruthless thriller The Suspect and the excellent Expect the Unexpected, a police drama directed by Patrick Yau (who was also responsible for The Longest Nite, one of the greatest Hong Kong films ever) and produced by Johnnie To, with whom he then worked on the triad classic The Mission in 1999.

This period saw the actor finally being taken more seriously by the critics, and he garnered Best Supporting Actor nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his work on Wilson Yip's heartfelt drama Juliet in Love in 2000 and Jacob Cheung's Midnight Fly in 2001, in which he acted alongside the legendary Anita Mui in one of her last roles before her untimely death in 2003. Yam's greatest achievement to date came in 2003 with P.T.U., again for director Johnnie To. His performance as a police officer caught up in a night of violence sparked by a missing gun not only earned another Hong Kong Film Awards nomination, this time for Best Actor, but also won him the top prize at the Golden Bauhinia Awards.

For reasons known only to Yam himself, despite his increasing acceptance as a serious actor, during this period he also stooped to starring in the likes of Horoscope II: The Woman from Hell and the similarly titled and equally awful Model from Hell, neither of which did anything to further his career.

Thankfully, these were no more than brief returns to the world of exploitation cinema, and the actor's star continued to rise thanks to working again with Johnnie To on Breaking News, which was the only Chinese film to play at the 2004 Cannes Festival and went on to pick up a number of domestic awards. Yam was by this time firmly established as one of the top action stars, a position which he further cemented by starring in Moving Targets alongside young talents Edison Chen, Gillian Chung, and Nicholas Tse and the thriller Explosive City, in which he teamed up with Japanese genre veteran Sonny Chiba.

Like many other big name Hong Kong actors, Yam answered the call of Hollywood and made his U.S. debut in the Angelina Jolie-vehicle Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life in 2003. Predictably enough, he was cast as a villain. Despite a number of other offers, the actor returned to Hong Kong, though his ever increasing status may well result in bigger and better offers from the West in the future.

2005 saw Yam rise to the very top of the Hong Kong acting profession as he starred in two of the year's biggest films, one of which was Wilson Yip's brutal police thriller SPL: Sha Po Lang, which saw him playing a corrupt, fatally ill police officer determined to bring down Sammo Hung's crime boss, aided by the flying fists and kicks of Donnie Yen. The other was Johnnie To's triad drama Election, which actually screened in competition at the Cannes Festival and won him a Best Actor nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards. His role as triad head Lok offered up one of the most memorably brutal scenes in recent years as he took gang rival Big D, played by Tony Leung Ka Fai, to task, smashing his head to a bloody pulp with a rock.

Yam has since consolidated his success by starring in the action thrillers Mob Sister and Dragon Squad and Johnnie To's Election 2 and Exiled, the highly anticipated follow-up to The Mission. He has proved beyond doubt that he is one of the genre's top stars. Having long since transcended his roots in exploitation film, the actor is firmly on track to becoming one of the all time greats of Hong Kong cinema.

Published November 20, 2006

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