Ringo Lam's On Fire Series
With the recent teaser trailer being released for Ringo Lam’s Sky on Fire, I thought it would be nice to look back at the rest of his On Fire series of films, which include some of his best work. The series began in 1987 with City on Fire. Unlike other Hong Kong gangster movies of the time, Lam established a gritty and realistic look to his films, much removed from the films of John Woo and his many imitators. The series also went on to influence Western filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino. Most of the films in the On Fire series are thematic sequels, dealing with crime and the lower elements of society. Only Prison on Fire 2 is a direct sequel.
City on Fire – 1987
Probably the most famous of the On Fire series, due to its well publicised influence on Tarantino when he was writing Reservoir Dogs. In truth only the last third of City on Fire has any resemblance to Reservoir Dogs, as Lam focuses more on the inner workings of the gang, and the police trying to catch them.
The plot revolves around Ko Chow, played by Chow Yun Fat in a role very different from John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow which he made the year before. Chow is a cop, who after the death of an undercover cop (Elvis Tsui Kam Kong), is sent by his superiors to infiltrate a gang of Robbers. The robbers are lead by Fu, played by Danny Lee who for a nice change doesn’t play his usual role of a police man. Also included in the group is the underrated Tommy Wong Kwong Leung, who would go on to become a Ringo Lam regular.
Similar to Hollywood gangster movie Donnie Brasco, Chow ends up befriending the robbers/gangsters and finds that he is got more in common with them than he does his fellow police officers. The film is very critical in its view of the police. Although there is the kindly Inspector Lau (Sun Yueh), there is also the brutal Inspector John Chan, played be a gleefully sadistic Roy Cheung, another Lam regular.
As the other police aren’t aware of Chow’s true allegiances, he is chased and brutalised by the police. There are no black and white areas in City on Fire. The robbers are shown to be killers, but don’t go out of their way to be. One of the best scenes is in the first robbery when Danny Lee is forced to kill a guard. The look on Lee’s face says it all, as he seems sad that he had to do it. The film shows a good deal of Chow’s home life, with his girlfriend Hung, played by Carrie Ng. This part of the film feels very real, and unlike other films, seems like a real relationship. By that I mean it is doomed from the start.
Although not primarily an action film, there are a number of excellent chase scenes and shootouts throughout the film. Unlike the bullet ballet shown in similar Hong Kong films, these are extremely realistic. They have more in common with the works of William Friedkin, or Kinji Fukasaku than they do with Hong Kong cinema.
Although this was Lam’s fifth film as Director, it was the first of his films to be truly his, and be shot in the style that he would become famous for. Before this he had made Esprit d’amour (1983), The Other Side of Gentleman (1984), Cupid One (1985) and Aces go Places 4 (1986). Of these four movies, I can only really recommend the enjoyable Aces go Places. Although nothing like his other movies, there is some excellent action scenes, and if you are a fan of that particular series of films you won’t be disappointed. It was also through his collaboration on this film with star/producer Karl Maka that he got to make City on Fire. Maka gave him cart blanche to make his next film, and make any type of film he wanted, which Maka would produce for him.
City on Fire would go on to win Ringo Lam the Best Director Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
Prison on Fire – 1987
Ringo Lam followed up his smash hit City on Fire with the next in the series Prison on Fire, once again starring Chow Yun Fat. Karl Maka also returned to produce.
The plot concerns Lo Ka-Yiu (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), who has recently been sent to prison, for three years on manslaughter charges. Whilst in prison he befriends Ching Tin-Ching, played by Chow Yun Fat. At first it is not made clear why Ching is in prison, as he seems like a decent guy, but we later find out that he killed his wife in a rage when he found out his wife was working as a prostitute.
Essentially about the day to day life in a Hong Kong prison, what plot there is concerns the issues Ching and Yiu have with inmate Mickey (William Ho), and the sadistic warden “Scarface” Hung played by the excellent Roy Cheung. The film culminates in the prisoners going on hunger strike due to price rise of cigarettes in the prison, which leads on to a massive prison riot.
Prison on Fire was quite a change from the same years City on Fire. Although still dealing with criminals, the film is mainly limited to the one setting. Other than the opening of the film when Tony Leung Ka-Fai gets into a fight with a man for threatening his father, the film is set in prison. Much more of a drama than a thriller, the film is once again critical of law enforcement, this time the sadistic prison wardens. Although not all the wardens are portrayed as villainous, Roy Cheung as Scarface is one of the worst villains he has ever played. Considering the amount of villains Cheung has portrayed in his career, this gives you an idea what he is like.
On the performance side, Chow Yun Fat is clearly the star. Although Tony Leung Ka-Fai is more the focus of the plot, Chow still runs away with the film. This is not to say Ka-Fai isn’t good in the film, as he is his usual excellent self, although his character does come across as somewhat cowardly. As mentioned already, Roy Cheung is great in his trademarked bastard role. Also Lam regular Tommy Wong and Shing Fui On/Big Silly Head also play inmates.
Ringo Lam brings his expected gritty style. Although Prison on Fire is not an action movie, the film climaxes in one Lam’s best action scenes, with the aforementioned prison riot. This scene is extremely violent and painful looking and ends with a character having their ear chewed off.
Lam was once again nominated as best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his work on Prison on Fire, but did not win this time.
School on Fire – 1988
The bleakest of the On Fire films, and possibly of Ringo Lam’s career. The film was heavily censored upon release in Hong Kong. The uncut version is unfortunately very hard to come by, due to it only ever being released on VHS.
The plot concerns Chu Yuen Fong (Fennie Yuen), witnessing a violent crime being carried out by a group of teenagers. Encouraged to testify in court against them, her life begins to unravel, with her realising that her school is full of young triad members who make her life a misery so that she won’t testify.
She is encouraged by local cops Hoi and Chuen Ngor played by the excellent Lam Ching Ying and Tommy Wong Kwong-Leung to testify. She is supported by Damian Lau’s character Mr Wan, a teacher at her school. On the other side she is threatened by the films villain Brother Smart, played by, you guessed it, Roy Cheung. It’s not only her life that is ruined, but everyone she is associated with. The film has a number of extreme scenes and culminates in an orgy of violence.
Unlike the other two On Fire films, which seemed to be critical of law enforcement. School on Fire seems to be made to indict the Triad lifestyle, as there are no honourable gangsters in this movie. The closest I suppose would be the character of Brother Scar played by Terence Fok, who falls in love with Yuen’s character. You could hardly call him heroic though. Lam’s main criticism in this film regarding law enforcement is how ineffective it is in dealing with the local triad problem. Not just the police, but the school system and parents are shown to be quite hopeless against the triads, who are shown to be not only running the streets but the local schools. Not being from Hong Kong, I am not sure how close to reality this film is/was at the time. For young people’s sake I really hope that it was over exaggerated for dramatic purposes.
Lam’s view of law and order, triad’s and the Hong Kong school system is very pessimistic. The overall atmosphere of the film is of dread, as you pretty much know that the lead characters aren’t going to have a good ending, and even those who survive the film will be physically and emotionally scarred.
Fans of the first two films in the series will not want to miss this. Out of the four films in the series, School on Fire has the least amount of action, but there are still a number of bone cracking fights, multiple stabbings and a lot of blood, which by this point people had come to expect from Lam.
Unfortunately School on Fire wasn’t as financially successful as the previous two movies in the series, which was mainly due to the subject matter of the movie. Actress Sarah Lee Lai Yu, who plays lead character Fong’s best friend, won best supporting actress at the Hong Kong film awards.
Prison on Fire 2 – 1991
After School on Fire, Lam didn’t return to the On Fire series for another three years. In that time he directed Wild Search (1989), a more subdued film than usual, heavily inspired by Peter Weir’s Witness. He also directed Undeclared War (1990), his attempt at a bigger budget action movie with an international cast. It turned out to be a financial failure. He followed this up with Touch & Go A.K.A. Point of No Return (1991), a grittier than usual Sammo Hung movie. It wasn’t until after these he decided to return to his On Fire series.
Once again produced by Karl Maka, Prison on Fire 2 is very similar to the original film. Like in the first film, the main plot follows the friendship between two inmates. This time it is Ching, once again played by Chow Yun Fat, and Brother Dragon, a gangster from the mainland played by Cheng Sung Young. The film also includes the growing tensions between the Hong Kong inmates and the new inclusion of Mainland China prisoners.
Ching escapes from prison this time, in order to visit his son, who is now in care after his grandmother has dies. Because of this, he gets on the wrong side of Officer Zau (Elvis Tsui Kam Kong), making Roy Cheung’s “Scarface” look like a choirboy. He ends up escaping a second time so that he can follow Brother Dragon. This just makes Zau even more determined to destroy Ching.
Like the first film, the majority of the movie takes place in a Hong Kong prison, although the sequel does go outside the prison walls for a time during Ching’s escape attempts. One of these escapes involves an excellent chase sequence, and is up there with Ringo Lam’s best action scenes.
The film, also like the first, climaxes with a large prison riot. It tries to outdo the first film, and almost succeeds.
Performance wise, Chow Yun Fat once again is great, and just builds on what we had seen from his character in the first movie. Chen Sung Young is also good as Brother Dragon, but doesn’t make as much as an impression as the missing Tony Leung Ka-Fai from the first part. Tommy Wong is also back from the first movie, in what is a sadly underwritten part. It would have been good to have more from him. New addition Elvis Tsui Kam Kong as Officer Zau is terrific. His character of the Prison Warden is a bit over the top compared to the more realistic character Roy Cheung played in the first movie, but if you are a fan of this actor this is what you should expect. His part of Officer Zau is just one more in a line of memorable characters from this underrated actor.
Sadly, this seemed to be the last in the On Fire Series until the recently announced Sky on Fire starring Daniel Wu. Unlike the other four films in the series, this film doesn’t appear to deal with street level crime, instead being a more mainstream action movie about chemical weapons. Here’s hoping that Lam hasn’t lost his touch and gives us a worthy addition to the series.