short film about the similarities.)
Lam, who died in 2018 at age 63, never got the attention his contemporaries John Woo and Tsui Hark received, but he was a key creative force in the late-’80s, early-‘90s golden era of Hong Kong cinema. City was his fifth film, and the first of five features that teamed him with HK superstar Chow Yun-Fat.
Though Lam made some stylish – and highly stylized – action films in his 33-year career (notably 1992’s Full Contact, also starring Chow, and the 1994 kung fu epic Burning Paradise), City is primarily a gritty downbeat police drama. Chow, charismatic as always, plays an undercover cop who infiltrates a gang of jewelry store robbers, and bonds with a fellow thief (played by Danny Lee), whom he knows he must eventually betray.
Things go wrong when a botched robbery turns into a bloody shootout. It all ends up at an abandoned factory where the surviving thieves meet and argue about who was the informant in their midst, leading to a three-way Mexican standoff. (Sound familiar?).
Set during the Christmas season in an extravagantly neon-lit Hong Kong nightscape, City is a full-on film noir, right down to the bluesy jazz score. Chow’s cop, Ko Chow, is torn between his loyalties, and cracking under pressure. His personal life is falling apart, with his fiancee threatening to leave HK for San Francisco with another man. Ko Chow also finds himself increasingly in danger as some of the gang members start to suspect he’s not who he says he is. (The film opens with his undercover predecessor being brutally stabbed to death in a crowded market.)
Though it’s essentially a tense, tightly knit drama, the film also contains action scenes that are both vivid and realistically messy, including a chaotic getaway in a speeding car, set to the Christmas carol “Joy to the World.”
Chow and Danny Lee reunited two years later in John Woo’s The Killer, this time reversing roles, with Lee a dogged cop and Chow the hired assassin he pursues. Lam would go on to make Prison on Fire, Prison on Fire II, Wild Search and Full Contact with Chow, all classics of HK cinema. But Lam wasn’t above doing a little borrowing himself. Wild Search, from 1989, is clearly patterned on Peter Weir’s 1985 film Witness, with rural mainland China subbing for Pennsylvania’s Amish country. Some key scenes in the Prison films also echo similar ones in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, from 1978.
Like Woo and Hark before him, Lam eventually went to America, where he made his English-language debut with the Jean-Claude Van Damme actioner Maximum Risk in 1996. He went on to helm two Direct-to-DVD features starring Van Damme, alternating them with more ambitious films back in his native HK. But City on Fire remains his masterpiece, and a landmark of Hong Kong cinema.
author of nine novels, the most recent of which, Heaven's a Lie, was published by Mulholland Books/Little, Brown in April.