NYAFF 2010: Simon Sez - An interview with Simon Yam

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
NYAFF 2010: Simon Sez - An interview with Simon Yam
[Once again thanks goes to the incomparable Diva Velez, for the following interview - one which was edited down from an hour long conversation... oh, to have been there, fan boys...]

The Lady Miz Diva: 
Mr. Yam, you started your acting career under contract with the Hong Kong television network TVB...
Simon Yam:  Ah, it was a long time ago!
LMD:  Yes, but so many well-known actors like yourself have come from TVB.
SY:  Yes, right, including many famous directors and actors and actresses all come from TVB.
LMD:  What did you take away from your time there?  What did you learn then that you use today?
SY:  Being on time!  Actually, I didn't, I learned being on time from my father, who was a policeman.  They're always on time.  I learned manners from TVB.  And how to be energetic; cos in the old days we'd shoot today and then we're dubbing and then we're editing and then the third day, we do this again.  This was the routine of before.  This was horrible.  So when you are sick, you need to do the work.  When you have a fever, you can't rest, you need to come back to TV, you need to work.  I learned motivation from TVB.  
LMD:  There was a long period in your career where you were starring in an average of one film per month.  How is that even possible?
SY:  Actually, it was a movie every two months, but sometimes we would make two or three movies at the same time.  There was a period around 1989-1994; normally we'd make 5 movies at the same time.  And in a 3 month period, you'd need to finish like 4 movies.  For example, January through March, you'd make 4 movies, then for March you'd finish 2 movies, then in May through July you'd work in 3 movies and then you'd finish 2 or 3 movies then 3 more movies through the end of the year.
LMD:  No wonder you're so slim.  How were you able to transition between the different characters you had to play?
SY:  I had no choice, because at that period there were a lot of gangster and triads, they want you to make movies.  I don't know if you saw the protests on the street in 1994 against the triads on the news?  I had no choice, I needed to work.  But the point is I really enjoy my acting; that is the most important thing in every single different kind of role I act.  But in that period there were pattern movies, like there is a fight first, then a love story in the middle, then another fight, then again a love story or a brotherhood story then last another fight.
LMD:  It was a formula.
SY:  Yes, it was a formula, but after 1997, I loved it.  After 1997, the money crisis made every single country drop Hong Kong films.  The economy was going down.  So after 1997 Simon Yam was so happy, because it meant no more formula movies.  No more formula movies means you have to get a good director to make a good movie by himself to survive.  So they would need good actors and actresses who can cooperate together to make some good movies.
LMD:  One thing that separates your acting from others is the intensity level you bring to your roles.  How deeply do you invest yourself in your characters?  Many actors like to stay in character the whole time they are filming. 
SY:  I think the most important thing is I do a lot of research.  I always say that I'm not going to act.  When you are acting, you're all wrong.  It needs to be as big as life and then that life has to be something that could happen in your neighbourhood.   You have to let the audience get into your character.  When you are always acting, you must say, 'This is not my life,' otherwise you are overacting.
LMD:  How do you pull back from playing such intense characters?
SY:  I go home and have dinner with my wife.  I leave the character at the set.  I always have sport shoes a gym and table tennis and I pack it into my truck and I drive.  It's very easy to drive in Hong Kong, so it's very easy to go to the gym.  When I'm finished {shooting}, I must go for exercise.  Then I have a portable DVD in my car and a handphone for the news channel.  Every news channel, I need to watch it, because those people from the news I can say, 'This is the dictator.'  So I get all the research and then I think 'Why do they do like that?'  And then how the why can fit Simon Yam?  Why I can play Echoes of the Rainbow?  Why I can play Night and Fog?  Why I can be a good cop and why I can be a bad cop?  Why I can be a dictator of the Storm Warriors?  Lots of why.
LMD:  You did so many films in that late 80's early 90's period, then you did John Woo's Bullet in the Head in 1990.  Did that change things for you?
SY:  No.  Everybody was talking about John Woo, but at the same time after John Woo's movies, they love the character.  Filmmakers, they wanted Simon Yam to be like the John Woo movies.  They typecast me, "Why do you make different movies?"  So it made me very upset.  I said. "I am an actor.  I want to play like in the John Woo movies, a very classic guy, but I'm an actor.  I want to be the best actor in Hong Kong.  Why do you limit my acting?" 
LMD:  Besides Bullet in the Head, I think a lot of international audiences have recently come to know you from your 2005 hit, Election.  Can you tell us about your work with director Johnnie To?
SY:  Well, Johnnie and I help each other.  He had things very bad in 1997 because of the money crisis; there were no more films for him.  I remember he wanted to make The Mission {1997}, I said "Why not, we can make it low-budget and I'll bring in all the costumes, I'll bring everything. Don't talk about money."  I'm not the guy who's looking for money.  This is my advantage.  Money is not the object.  Friendship is more important for me.  That's why when Johnnie was like, "1997 is too bad," I said, "Forget about money.  If you want to give me a salary, please give it to the crew."  Johnnie is just a talented director.  I admire him. His spirit is good, everything is good, that's why I love Johnnie.  The same thing with Ringo Lam, they are good friends.  We have dinner all the time, that's why we can make such good movies after that.
LMD:  Do you find you work best with a director who will listen to your suggestions?
SY:  With some directors, I just trust them.  I'm the guy that very seldom watches the playback, I never look at the playback.  When the director says cut I say, "Okay," I just go on.  I believe in you, Ringo.  I believe in you, Johnnie.  I believe in you, Ann Hui.  The point is if you're always looking at the playback, it becomes easy to act yourself.  It makes you doubt.  Sometime when I finish, this is the real person, this is the real character then in that world, not yourself.
LMD:  As the name Simon Yam is so synonymous with Hong Kong film, what do you think the future of the industry will be?  Last year I asked that of screenwriter Ivy Ho and she felt that in 20 years there would be no films made in Cantonese.  Do you agree with that?
SY:  Ivy Ho!  She worked at TVB before.  Wow, her script fee is so expensive!  I love her work.  No, I don't agree, because there needs to be some pattern movies for the whole world, but sometimes there needs to be some localised films for the culture.  I love Hong Kong films, because it represents the history of the culture of that period.  I will not give up the Hong Kong film.  I will not give it up!  This is the culture of Hong Kong, like the culture of Manhattan.  There needs to be some formula movies like Avatar, but like Manhattan's movies, like Woody Allen's Manhattan, you need to be like that.  In the film industry, you need to give some good choices to the audience.  Woody Allen's film gives you a history of Manhattan, so after 100 or 200 years, you can watch that film in a library -- all the kids who want to be a director or an actor -- they can watch Woody Allen in whatever year and know that was the spirit of Manhattan!  That's from the movies.  That's why Simon Yam insists.  So I disagree!
China has released a lot of films, but they are formula movies, pattern movies.  Some of the scripts don't have the creativity.  But now they are changing already because the Guangdong provinces, they are allowing us to release films in Cantonese.  That's interesting!  So of 33 provinces, of course China is huge, a lot of people speak Mandarin; you have to make some good Mandarin movies for the 32 provinces.  But still, Guangdong has a huge population, they are very close to Hong Kong and it is very easy for them to trust each other.  That's why, even if you have a cut-down budget, in that budget, if you make some localised Cantonese films only for Guangdong and Hong Kong can make you survive.
LMD:  You've produced a film in the past {2008's Ocean Flame} and you have a wonderful eye for photography which would make me think of directing to put your visions on film.  Is acting enough for you?  Have you ever wanted to write or direct?
SY:  Ah!  You're so clever.  I'm gonna show you two things; one is my painting, one is when I was doing Echoes of the Rainbow, a short film directed by me called "Masterpiece by Simon Yam."
{Yam presents his Iphone and plays the five minute clip} I shot it by myself and chose the music by myself, everything by myself.  I used a 5D Canon camera Mark 2; this was the first day with the camera.  This represents the 1960's.  The movie takes place in the 60's.  This is the first one for me to direct, the second one will be a movie. {Shows a series of what appear to be abstract paintings} It's all photography work.  Those are all flowers.
LMD:  Before we finish, I must congratulate you on winning the Star Asia award at the New York Asian Film Festival.  Are you surprised about the great reception from fans here considering most of your films have never been seen in US cinemas?
SY:  Give me kung-fu.  I'm so sorry. This is normal.  In America, when you have a lot of kung-fu, then you can put it in a big theatre.  When it's not kung-fu, please put it in a small theatre.  This is normal all over the world.  This is why I make a film like Tomb Raider 2 and I fight.  It doesn't matter for me.
LMD:  So, success in the US isn't your primary goal?
SY:  No, it's not my first choice.
LMD:  The other person you've won the award with is Sammo Hung, who is an old friend you've worked with before.
SY:  He is lovely.  He is one of my really big brothers.  He has such a good heart, so generous.  I have a lot of Dai Goh {big brothers} in Hong Kong.  I always say that Sammo Hung is the only one Dai Goh, because he's got a very, very good heart.  The other Dai Goh, I'm sorry.
~ The Lady Miz Diva
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