Gordon Lam and Ann Hui, recipients of Variety honors at the New York Asian Film Festival, could scarcely be more different. Actor-turned producer Lam, who is receiving Variety Star Asia Award is ebullient and busy. Hui, for all her renown in Asia and Europe as a top director, is quiet and unassuming. She will be presented with the Variety Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award.
What they have in common is a lengthy career that has taken them from the bottom of the Hong Kong entertainment industry to the upper echelons. Both have achieved reputations that have been earned by endless hard work, which has served their carefully honed talent.
Born in Manchuria of Japanese and Chinese parents, Hui was convent school-educated in Hong Kong and studied film in London, where she brushed up against industry icon King Hu.
Returning to Hong Kong in 1976, Hui was thrown in at the deep end, first working as a producer-director for dominant broadcaster TVB. She switched to making primetime crime shows that were commissioned by the newly hatched Independent Commission Against Corruption. She also worked for government-owned broadcaster RTHK on the high-profile documentary show “Under the Lion Rock.”
Hui’s prodigious output earned her a good reputation among industry leaders including Law Kar and at the same time gave her unparalleled experience that enabled her to graduate to feature films as a director who operated independently of the big local studios.
Her 30-plus films since then have ranged from literary adaptations of Eileen Chang stories (“Love in a Fallen City” and “Love After Love”) to comedy-horror (“Spooky Bunch”) to semi-autobiographical drama (“Song of the Exile”) and female-centric epics such as “The Story of Woo Viet.” The latter, which is also the second part of Hui’s Vietnam Trilogy, is being given a screening on its 40th anniversary at the NYAFF.
Hui’s directing style is difficult to pin down. She says she adapts every time to the material and that she is more interested in subject matter, events and characters than by genre conventions. Where she is consistent is the attention she gives to the detail of personal drama.
Part of the difficulty of pigeon-holing Hui, is that she has operated in a hand-to-mouth fashion. As a freelancer, focused on directing rather than aspiring to the more glamorous auteur-director heights, Hui has sometimes followed the available money, worked for unlikely corporate patrons and operated from third-party scripts. Hui says that not planning far ahead is good for her peace of mind, not her bank balance.
But by quietly amassing a body of sociologically relevant and quietly political works, Hui has achieved iconic status. The recent doc, “Keep Rolling,” explores her filmmaking career and her relentless understated rebellion.
Born 20 years later than Hui, Lam Ka-tong graduated in 1988 from the famous TVB Artist Training Class. But his acting career went nowhere until the late-1990s, when he starred in “Time Before Time” and found some minor film roles including hit “Gen X Cops.” Under contract with superstar Andy Lau’s Topman Global, his film career blossomed, with roles in “Infernal Affairs” and Johnny To’s “Election” and “Exiled.”
Lam branched out into production, starting with the warmly appreciated and award-winning “Gallants” in 2010. Lam’s role, playing an interpretation of real-life mobster Kwai Ping-hung, in the To-produced “Trivisa” earned him a trio of acting prizes at the Hong Kong Film Awards, Film Critics’ and Film Directors’ kudos.
More recent efforts have seen Lam front “Chasing the Dragon II” and star as a retired colonel in neo-noir crime film “Hand Rolled Cigarette.” The commercial career of “Cigarette” may have been stymied by the pandemic, but it is winning wide plaudits on the festival circuit — including the Golden Mulberry Award for first feature at the recent Festival of Far East Film in Udine.