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The Second Coming of Dante Lam

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Ever since the heady genre days of the late 1980s, Hong Kong cinema has been known for, and indeed for many viewers around the world defined by, its iconic action directors. With the legendary John Woo, responsible for countless classics of the form including A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hardboiled, having returned from Hollywood to focus on Mainland China historical epics, there has for some years now been a vacancy for a new master of explosive thrills. For many critics and fans, Dante Lam may well be the man to sit on the throne and to take the crown from Woo, having directed several of the genre's very best outings of recent years, including his 2010 hits Fire of Conscience and The Stool Pigeon.

Interestingly, these recent successes represent something of a comeback for Lam, who during the early stages of his career back in the late 1990s was seen as one of Hong Kong cinema's top prospects. Sadly, his rise faltered after a series of underwhelming efforts, and he lost a great deal of ground to other helmers such as Johnnie To and Andrew Lau. All of that changed in 2008, when he burst back onto the scene with a bullet with the awesome, award winning The Beast Stalker. With a gritty sense of realism, conflicted characters and brutal, no punches pulled action, the film was instantly recognizable as being in the style of his early hits, announcing his return and his second chance at taking his place amongst the genre's elite.

Tough Beginnings: Option Zero and Beast Cops

A Hong Kong native, Dante Lam Chiu Yin began his career in the 1980s, initially working in film production and action choreography, taking a few minor acting roles on the side. By the early 1990s he had taken several steps up the ladder, and was working as an assistant director to Gordon Chan, who at that time was starting to take off in the industry himself. The two would go on to collaborate on many occasions in the future, beginning with Brief Encounter in Shinjuku in 1990 and followed by the likes of Stephen Chow's Fight Back to School in 1991 and the Jackie Chan vehicle Thunderbolt in 1995.

Lam finally took up the directorial reigns himself in 1997 with the thriller Option Zero, produced by Gordon Chan. The film was written by A Better Tomorrow scripter Chan Hing Kai, who along with Chan had been instrumental in launching and popularizing the 1990s trend for melodrama tinged cop thrillers, that focused on the private lives of their characters as well as their on the job troubles, as seen with The Final Option, First Option and Task Force. Unsurprisingly, Option Zero was very much in line with these hits, starring Julian Cheung as a member of the HK Special Duties Unit (SDU), who has as much trouble in his love life with Carman Lee and fellow squad member Monica Chan as he does with criminals. The film also featured the inimitable Michael Wong, and Anthony Wong as another cop also having relationship issues. Although a little rough around the edges, the film successfully married its various elements, in part due to Lam's meticulous approach, which apparently involved a great deal of research and contact with the HK Special Forces. He would later become well known for this grounded style of film making, focusing not only upon gun battles and fist fights, but on his characters and the often no-win moral dilemmas they faced.

The director took this realism to a new level with his follow up, Beast Cops, which he co-directed with Gordon Chan, again from a script from Chan Hing Kai, revolving around Anthony Wong as a cop who keeps the peace on the streets through a variety of methods definitely not covered in the police regulations handbook. His life becomes even more complicated when he is landed with a new partner (Michael Wong), a man with a far more black and white view of morality and corruption, and when his Triad friend and partner (Roy Cheung) suddenly disappears. There really hadn't been anything quite like Beast Cops before, or indeed since, as it dragged the cop thriller right down into the dirty gutter of the streets, grimly human and utterly compelling, not to mention filled with bloody action and a violent climax that still ranks as one of the genre's most jaw dropping. As with Option Zero, the film again showed Lam's attention to detail and research paying off, being all the more believable for its lack of large scale set pieces. Although the film indubitably belongs to Anthony Wong for his bravura, award winning lead performance, the film also won Best Picture and Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1999, establishing Lam as a major talent, and indeed as one of the industry's real hopes for the future.

A change of pace came next with When I Look Upon the Stars, a romantic comedy about a young man played by Leo Koo, who travels to Japan, only to find out that his girlfriend has been unfaithful, and ending up spending 24 hours with Shu Qi's cheerful eccentric. Seeing Lam again working with the Gordon Chan and Chan Hing Kai team, the film unsurprisingly offered something a little different, and like its female lead had a flighty and saccharine sweet surface that hides a real emotional depth and sense of pathos.

From Triads to Tiramisu

Next up in 2000, Lam seemed to be returning to the thriller genre with Jiang Hu - The Triad Zone. However, although the film, which starred Tony Leung Ka-Fai as a mob boss who finds out that he is to be assassinated within 24 hours and decides to re-evaluate his life whilst working out the identity of the killer, may have sounded like a typical genre outing, it was in fact anything but. The film proved to be a genuinely eccentric article, switching between moments of comedy, romance, surrealism and brutality, in alternately uneven and delightful fashion, coming together to offer a highly entertaining picture of the life of a man given to living large, as well as an offbeat deconstruction of the tired genre form. Proving Lam capable of quirkiness as well as grit, the film was another hit, being nominated for Best Picture at the 20th Annual Hong Kong Film Awards, and with Chan Hing Kai's script winning Best Screenplay 7th Annual Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards.

Something more traditional followed with Hit Team in 2001, which Lam wrote, produced and handled the action scenes. The film was very much in his grounded style, with a pair of conflicted protagonists in Alex To as the leader of a gang of rogue cops carrying out robberies in order to pay for an operation for a crippled friend, and Daniel Wu as the head of the titular elite team assembled to bring them down. Although not quite up to the standards of his other genre works, the film was still an above average genre entry, bolstered by his usual investment in his characters, with every action scene being linked in with the plot rather than simply thrown in for explosive effect.

In the same year he also wrote and directed Runaway, which like Jiang Hu was another most atypical Triad comedy thriller, with Roy Cheung and Samuel Pang as low level gangsters on the run in Thailand after a deal involving Anthony Wong's rival gang boss goes wrong. The film was a mixture of action, comedy, romance and Triad drama, refusing to play out along expected lines, and managing to be hilarious, thrilling, and charmingly idiosyncratic at the same time, due in no small part to a multi-layered, frequently bizarre performance from Wong.

After making a cameo in the Patrick Leung and Chan Hing Kai directed La Brassiere and producing Cheung Chi Sing's largely unsuccessful U-Man, Lam wrote and directed Tiramisu in 2002. The film was an ambitious change of direction, a supernatural romantic drama that starred Nicholas Tse and Karena Lam as a young couple who seem to be fated to be together, only for her to die after being hit by a bus. Due to the fact that they were thinking of each other right before the accident, he finds himself still able to see her spirit, which inhabits his body during the day and comes out at night. Tiramisu is certainly an interesting film, with a lot going on and an abundance of big ideas and themes, not to mention an effective pair of eye candy leads, both of whom turn in charismatic performances. Unfortunately, it suffers from Lam having drifted from his usual gritty realism and naturalistic approach, and though it manages a few emotional tugs at the heartstrings, it never really hangs together or makes much sense.

The Twins Effect and Romantic Comedies

Lam took a stab at the big time in 2003 with the pop duo Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung vehicle The Twins Effect, a much hyped Emperor Multimedia Group production that also featured the likes of Ekin Cheng and Edison Chen, not to mention a cameo appearance from the legendary Jackie Chan. A bouncy mix of vampires, vampire hunters, comedy, romance and the occasional burst of martial arts action (featuring choreography by none other than Donnie Yen), the film rarely makes any sense, being mainly concerned with wacky tangents and cutesy shenanigans. Although a commercial success, and generally amiable and entertaining, mainly thanks to its likeable cast, most of whom seemed to be having a fine old time, Lam's trademark style was all but absent from the film, which saw him pretty saw him working as a director for hire.

Lam continued to shy away from the thriller genre in which he had made his name with the category III rated comedy Naked Ambition, co-directed by Chan Hing Kai. Based on an apparently true story, the film revolved around Louis Koo and Eason Chan as a couple of down on their luck guys who start a magazine focusing on the Hong Kong sex industry. The publication becomes incredibly popular, though success comes with its fair share of headaches, as the two run into trouble with the Triads, not to mention their relationships with girlfriends and each other. Although amusing, the film was a lightweight affair and rather a disappointment given that Lam and Chan had shown themselves in the past very capable of combining different genres and at adding depth and interesting characters to tried and tested scenarios.

The same could also be said of their next collaboration Love on the Rocks in 2004, an all star romantic comedy which strayed even further from the kind of tough thrillers which Lam's fans might have expected. The plot was classic farce, with Louis Koo enlisting the help of self-styled love consultant Charlene Choi to try and save his relationship with girlfriend Gigi Leung, only for her to slowly fall for him instead. Again, although Lam's handling was perfectly serviceable, as was the film itself, being both funny and mildly moving, it was rather anonymous and lacking in personality or anything to make it stick in the memory.

Perhaps as a result, for his next film Heat Team Lam returned to the old fashioned cop thriller genre, with popular stars Aaron Kwok and Eason Chan as cops joining a special unit assigned to tracking down a particularly cunning jewel thief. Focusing more on comedy than thrills, the buddy picture was an only partly successful throwback to the films of Lam's early 1990s career. Although far from being bad or a total waste of time, and featuring a handful of funny moments and some decent chemistry between the leads, it neither added anything new to the by now tired genre, nor managed to offer more than fleeting, disposable entertainment.

After rounding out 2004 by working on the action for and appearing in Gordon Chan's talky but involving journalistic thriller A-1 Headline, Lam returned in 2006 for what was possibly the lowest point of his career, the dull and mostly unfunny gangster comedy Undercover Hidden Dragon. Starring Ronald Cheng, model Pace Wu and a couple of members of the girl group Cookies, the film, co-directed by Chan, which at least means there was someone else to share the blame, limps along through ineffective wackiness and generally defies anyone to believe that it was directed by the same guy who just over a decade ago had been known for such tough, intelligent thrillers.

The Beast Stalker and Lam's Comeback

After being absent for a couple of years, Lam returned in 2008 to helm the animated epic Storm Rider - Clash of Evils. Based upon the popular comic, the film was a cartoon follow up to Andrew Lau's 1998 hit, following more exploits of the legendary heroes Wind and Cloud. Though mainly for fans of the source material and an appetizer for the live action Pang Brothers Storm Warriors, the film was an interesting example of Chinese animation that provided a decent amount of fantasy thrills.

In the same year, although Lam actually shot The Sniper first, due to the now infamous Edison Chen laptop scandal, his next released film was The Beast Stalker, which he co-wrote with Jack Ng. Given Lam's often indifferent form over the last few years, the film was an unexpected revelation, with a level of tough street level intensity almost rivaling that of Beast Cops, still hailed as a true classic of the genre. The film starred Nicholas Tse as a cop haunted by his accidental killing of a young girl, who is given a second chance when her twin sister is kidnapped by a brutal man (Nick Cheung) hired to try and blackmail a prosecutor (Zhang Jingchu) before an upcoming trial. Though the plot itself was nothing particularly new and the film was given to flights of melodrama and coincidence, Lam's handling was back to his very best, tight, tough and convincing. Tense throughout and punctuated by bursts of violent action, the film was anchored by its strong characters and eschewing of clear cut morality, with Nick Cheung turning in a gripping performance as the painfully human villain of the piece, winning himself Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards in 2009. The film was a much needed shot in the arm for the Hong Kong thriller genre, and was critically acclaimed at home and abroad, enjoying a successful international release and festival tour, with Lam's name again being mentioned as a top talent to watch.

The Sniper was finally released the following year in 2009, and despite its troubled production history and apparently drastic re-editing, still emerged as a superior action thriller that did no harm to Lam's newly rediscovered reputation. The film starred Richie Jen as the leader of an elite sniper unit, tracking down a former colleague gone rogue (Mainland actor Huang Xiaoming), whilst trying to handle Edison Chen's cocky new recruit. Filled with action and oozing testosterone, the film arguably benefited from having Chen's role strategically trimmed, making for more efficient and exciting viewing, and offering a solid slice of action during a lean period for the genre.

Fire of Conscience and The Stool Pigeon

With Lam now firmly re-established as one of Hong Kong's top directors, his next outing, the cop thriller Fire of Conscience was an eagerly awaited event, premiering at the Hong Kong International Film Festival before enjoying a successful domestic and international release. The plot was classic Lam, following a detective (Leon Lai) still tortured by the unsolved murder of his wife, forced to team with a slick but potentially untrustworthy inspector (Richie Jen) to investigate the linked murders of a police officer and a prostitute, along with a wave of drug related crimes. After getting off to an awesome freeze frame action packed start, the film makes for tense viewing, developing through a series of twists and character revelations, not to mention literally explosive gun battles, as it does its best to live up to its title. Though the plot itself was perhaps not accomplished or successful at navigating difficult moral ground as some of Lam's earlier outings, on a technical level the film is amongst his strongest work, with some truly astounding and impeccably handed action scenes - enough so to mark it as one of the strongest pure genre films of 2010.

Lam's latest effort was The Stool Pigeon, which reunited him with Beast Stalker stars Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung, this time with their hero and villain roles reversed, with Cheung as a cop troubled by the death of a former informant who is forced to work with Tse's petty criminal in order to infiltrate a brutal gang planning a major heist. Of course, there is considerably more to the plot than this, and the film shows Lam's usual complex mixture of shady morals and differing perspectives as the flawed though human characters struggle with each other and themselves. At the same time, the film also delivered plenty of intense and at times very violent action thrills, courtesy of Chin Ka Lok and Wong Wai Fai, who also worked on Fire of Conscience. Well acted by both of the leads, who bring a real sense of pathos to their dogged, increasingly desperate men, the film is hard hitting and gripping, and is a worthy follow up to The Beast Stalker in every respect.

And so, much as he did back at the turn of the century, Dante Lam finds himself hailed as one of Hong Kong's top directors of action packed thrillers and as the current favorite charged with leading the form forward. Whatever he decides to do next, and whether he decides to stay within the genre or not, it must be hoped that this time around he will continue to build upon his achievements.

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Published November 29, 2010

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