"No money, no time; just do it." So goes the Nike-esque philosophy of one of Hong Kong's most well-known and notorious filmmakers. With a firm grasp on the fast-paced expectations of the Hong Kong film industry, a reputation for having a quick temper, and a tyrannical on-set directorial style, Ringo Lam's gritty crime dramas have been hit and miss with audiences. But when they do hit, they hit hard.
Born in Hong Kong in 1955, Lam began his career by enrolling in the TVP Actors Training Program in 1973. It is here that a chance encounter with future star Chow Yun Fat would eventually lead to a long and fruitful collaboration for both aspiring artists. Following a brief acting stint, Lam decided that his skills were better behind the camera, and he emigrated to Canada, studying film at York University in Toronto. Lam returned to Hong Kong in 1981, where Cinema City approached him with his first film assignment. The job -- completing Leung Po Chi's unfinished ghost comedy Espirit D'Amour (1983) -- gave Lam his first taste of success, a taste that would become familiar yet somewhat bitter in the following years.
Lam's breakthrough hit came in 1987 with the gritty City on Fire, earning him the Best Director award at that year's HK Film Awards. Starring old friend Chow Yun Fat (who took home the Best Actor award for his role in the film), City on Fire's harsh crime figures set the standards in style and story line for his later films. City's influence proved longstanding, eventually reaching American audiences in the reworked form of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Continuing the On Fire series in 1987 with Prison on Fire and again in 1988 with School on Fire, Lam reached full form with the sleazily over-the-top crime drama Full Contact (1992). Again starring Lam's marquee actor of choice, Chow Yun Fat, Full Contact set Lam's reputation for excess in concrete. With its flamboyant gangsters and extravagant, startling violence, Full Contact gained the director recognition both at home and abroad.
In 1996, Lam made his American debut with the lackluster Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Maximum Risk. Joining the current influx of talented Hong Kong filmmakers forced into their American filmmaking debut via the Van Damme initiation rites, Maximum Risk made little impact at the box office and did little to advance the talented filmmaker's international career. Disappointment aside, success would soon be a familiar taste again with Lam's triumphant return to HK cinema, 1997's Full Alert. Gaining positive critical notice and good word of mouth, Full Alert marked the return of one of Honk Kong cinema's darkest visionaries to his home territory.