Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
Hong Kong's sleeping giant re-awakens after 17 years and finds himself the subject of much acclaim and attention, as well as a major retrospective.
Viewing Patrick Tam Ka-ming's works today provokes an ache of nostalgia. They make you yearn for the good old days of Hong Kong cinema, when ingenuity, talent, and work ethic were in strong supply. Tam's timeless classics embody Hong Kong's independent filmmaking at its best.
A seminal figure of Hong Kong's New Wave in late 1970s and 80s, Tam and his cohorts pioneered new techniques and paved the way for future mavericks such as Wong Kar-wai. Uncompromising and tenacious at heart, Tam departed from Hong Kong cinema 17 years ago to teach in Malaysia, thus escaping the grueling routines and deteriorating industry standards. His fame was partly obscured by this long hiatus and the lost prints of his early works. Nonetheless, his 2006 directorial comeback, the award-winning After This Our Exile, has sparked a revival of his filmic legacy. Recently, the Asian American International Film Festival in New York City showcased a rare retrospective of Tam's works, allowing audiences to see the breadth and skill of his oeuvre.
Like many of the New Wave movers and shakers, Tam began his career at the Hong Kong Television Broadcast Limited (HKTVB) in 1967. The television station was a breeding ground for many local directors. The newly-formed media giant gave young directors free-rein to pursue their projects. Many of them launched bold stylistic experiments with TV dramas. Their early projects showcased the liberating effect of directing for television.
One of Tam's most acclaimed early works was an episode he made for the TV series Seven Women, a survey of the new realities confronting modern Chinese women. Paying tribute to French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard's Two Or Three Things I Know About Her, Miu Kam-fong, his entry in the series, is an anti-consumerist study which probes actress Miu Kam-fong's off-screen life as a housewife who is consumed by objects around her. As Hong Kong's economy took off, many of its citizens indulged in instant material gratification. "Miu only cares about the triviality of life," says Tam. "She's spiritually empty. My film serves as a warning against the superfluous for the audience."
Filled with astounding visual collages, the TV drama captures the transformation of a modern society into a technological monstrosity. Miu Kam-fong opens with the actress's musing of the fragrance of fresh shampoo, and her bliss when surrounded by rows of foreign imports that line supermarket shelves. Interlaced in the TV drama are images of Hong Kong's fervent consumerism at its height: sprawling skyscrapers, chrome cars, and women standing in front of billboards plastered on every street corner. Reminiscent of Godard's film, Miu Kam-fong shows television sets filled with news headlines and satirical comments noted by Miu's advertiser husband Joe. Miu pipes out monologues quizzing audiences whether she is acting or living her own life. Her dual personas blur the line of fiction and reality.
Not a staunch political commentator, Tam says he used irony, sarcasm, and the juxtaposition of the bizarre and the opposite to question dominant social values. Such devices were most notable in his episode in Seven Women. Miu's husband simultaneously reads two magazines in a French cafe: a Chinese pictorial detailing the fall of Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four, and an English-language glossy peppered with advertisements of latest European fashions and household products. "I questioned Hong Kong's internationality -- the rise of a new middle class without bourgeoise sentiments -- and how the Hong Kong people experienced the clash of the Communist and Western cultures, [through the image of] glancing at one magazine with each eye," explains Tam.
Tam's 1982 feature film Nomad is another anti-consumerist manifesto, but it deals with a very different subject matter. Tam says Nomad was a backlash against the pervasiveness of Japanese pop culture among Hong Kong youth. "I saw the danger of the mindless embrace of foreign culture, and I wanted to warn them before it's too late." The story follows a Japanese assassin posed as a fashionista, who travels to Hong Kong to execute an exiled Japanese Red Guard deserter. Hidden in an Arabia-bound vessel lurking in Hong Kong's waters, the Japanese hermit befriends a group of Hong Kong youngsters. Friendship turns sour and the journey culminates in a macabre killing.
Tam envisioned Nomad as a conceptual film, and its protagonists as abstract embodiments of his philosophical reflection on Nietzsche's Joyful Wisdom. "I was trying to make sense of life, and explore human potential," he recalls. However, the frank sexual liberation of the film's budding stars -- Ken Tong, the late Leslie Cheung, and actresses Cecilia Yip Tung and Pat Ha -- caught all the media attention. Above all, Tam was infuriated by his producer's abrupt change of the film's ending to save costs. The final bloodbath on the boat was replaced by a swift sword fight on the beach.
Sexuality is another aspect of his works intended to challenge social norms, yet which ended up being misunderstood. Tam's 1976 prime time television drama Miu Kam-fong included the first love scenes shown on Hong Kong television, and hence was sent back to the censors for a second review. Headline-grabbing and sensational as they may have been, Tam emphasizes that sex and violence were only used if they served the context of the story. For instance, the love-making scenes in Miu Kam-fong were deliberately shot in short, commercial-like segments emblematic of the rise of commercialism in Hong Kong. In Nomad, the young lovers' passionate tryst on a midnight tram beleaguered educators and social critics. After the film's premiere, complaints flooded the local censorship bureau and the sex scenes were axed.
Looking back, Tam reckons that the Chinese audience has grown more conservative over the years. "All forms of censorship should be abolished," he protests. "I'm not worried about the critics," he adds. "Sex is an important part of human life. Every sex scene in After This Our Exile is necessary to advance the story." Using the same actors to play their partners' dream lovers, Tam hopes to irk the frustration over the unattainable in real life. The film uses deft inter-cutting between two love scenes to create mirror images of love and lust.
The transition from TV to film was difficult, he acknowledges. "TV was safe, you didn't need to worry about the box office," he recalls. "Cinema was very commercial. The fast pace of production at big studios gave me a lot of anxiety."
Yet, in the late 1970s, Tam emerged as a titan of Hong Kong's New Wave cinema. He and fellow directors Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, Yim Ho, Allen Fong Yuk-ping, and John Woo turned their cameras on the local Chinese. They broke away from the hackneyed kung fu and Mandarin-language costume dramas, and captured the sweeping changes of contemporary Hong Kong on screen as its citizens gained a new sense of identity.
Tam in particular focused on the Cantonese-speaking majority and dissected different layers of Hong Kong's social fabric -- contrasting the elite and the lower middle class cramped in public housing in Nomad, and reinventing the wuxia genre with stylish swordfights and a fully developed narrative in The Sword.
Unlike many Hong Kong New Wavers who studied filmmaking abroad and returned to the city to test their new knowledge, Tam had no formal training. His first foray into film was writing reviews and criticism for his secondary school magazine. He became an aficionado of Western classics. Hitchcock's Vertigo and the works of French masters such as Bresson and Godard are his all time favorites.
As daring as it may have been, Tam does not think that the Hong Kong New Wave made a quantum leap. "It's just a convenient label for the media and critics," he says. "I don't think we have exerted deep impact or totally subverted Hong Kong cinema." Tam calls the New Wave merely a period of "good timing" for young directors to innovate within the Hong Kong film industry. "We didn't share the same aesthetic ideals and we seldom got together to discuss filmmaking."
Referring to his past films as mere "cinematic exercises," the humble giant says he was not satisfied with his film works, which he created under tight constraints of time and budget. "They were just sketches for me to learn more about film aesthetics," he says. "I felt that my past protagonists were lacking in depth, and they needed more character development." Form and content are both important for creative work, notes Tam. "As a young director, one is naturally drawn to experimentation with film forms rather than content, since one's life experience is not deep enough."
This sense of inadequacy propelled Tam to withdraw from directing in the grueling film industry. In the past 17 years, he edited Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time, and Johnnie To's Election. He also opted to teach filmmaking in Malaysia, which allowed him the time and distance from the industry to think about his latest work, After This Our Exile.
Inspired by a news story in Malaysia, Tam and his students collaborated on the script of After This Our Exile. Whereas Hong Kong cinema is typically fixated with heroes and superstars, Tam's leads are pitiable cowards tainted with moral flaws. "I find [that] people with error and defects are more human and touching," he says. "You want to get close to them." A child at heart unable to learn from his past mistakes, Tam says the loser father in After This Our Exile allowed for an inventive examination of the lies one tells oneself and others in order to survive.
Unlike many Hong Kong directors who roll their cameras with unfinished scripts and improvise on set, Tam exemplifies how meticulous preparations yield the best results. Geniuses are few, he notices, and it is dangerous to render directions impromptu. For Tam, precision and accuracy are key. He carefully scouted all locations and talked to actors at length to discuss their roles. Then he "pre-edited" every scene of After This Our Exile in his head before shooting. "The director should make every effort to make sure the film is realized according to his vision," he explains.
Despite his interest in formal experimentation, Tam firmly believes in the power of the script. He trains his students to be foremost good scriptwriters, then directors. The filmmaker's affinity for literary texts and compelling narratives has laid a solid foundation for his experimental films. His works remind us of the virtue and power of storytelling, which is often discounted in favor of the shock value and tongue-in-cheek campiness of many Hong Kong blockbusters and gangster films.
But his sense of perfection sometimes creates tension in the cutthroat Hong Kong film industry. "I never consider the length of the film [when I'm shooting]," he says. "All I care is what's necessary to serve the narrative." Despite shooting only half of the full script and compressing 135 scenes into 77, the director's cut of After This Our Exile is 160 minutes long. He reluctantly edited a 90-minute version for his Hong Kong distributor and warned audiences not to see it.
Plagued by rampant piracy and constant brain drain, many filmmakers lament the demise of contemporary Hong Kong cinema. Yet, Tam is most critical of short-sighted investors who produce only gangster films to lure young movie goers. "They have to understand that film is not the only kind of entertainment for youngsters," he says. "They can go to karaoke bars, and play internet games.... The market calculations are wrong and they [producers and investors] neglect other movie goers. It really shrinks the film market."
Despite the odds, the screen sage still has hope for the future. These days, he splits his time teaching in Hong Kong and Malaysia to impart the gift of storytelling to the next generation.
Date Posted: 8/10/2007