Lam Ka-tung is the producer and co-screenwriter of satirical black comedy Time, directed by Ricky Ko, and showing as part of our Hong Kong New Talents program. The team at the Hong Kong International Film Festival spoke to Lam Ka-tung about his role as a producer, working with directors, and the Hong Kong film industry.
Lam Ka-tung joined the performing artist training programme of Television Broadcast Limited, Hong Kong's major broadcaster, in 1988. He started acting in films from 1992 and have since been in over 70 films, including Ip Man (2008) and Internal Affairs (2002). He was awarded Best Actor at the 36th Hong Kong Film Awards for his performance in Trivisa (2016). Gallants (2010) was his first film as producer, and the film went on to win Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards. He also produced Get Outta Here (2015) and Time (2021), also taking co-screenwriter credit for the latter.
Hong Kong International Film Festival: Gallants (2010) is the first film you produced and it won the Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards. How did this inspire you?
Lam Ka-tung: I wasn't entirely sure what I had to do when I produced Gallants. During the process, I learned that I needed to handle a lot of things behind the scenes. The directors had to focus on the shooting, but there were many other issues that also needed handling. Over the years, I accumulated more experience. When I produced Time, I was also working with a new director. I had a clear idea what this story is about and how I should work with the director so that he could invest deeply into the film's world. When he was ready, we knew how to take the next steps on pre-production, shooting and finally presenting the film to the audience. Like the director, I learned and grew with everyone else. I am not an experienced producer, but perhaps I now have a better idea how I can cooperate with the director and deal with challenges from him.
HKIFF: You are a veteran actor and have worked with renowned directors. As a producer working with new directors, what are the things you need to deal with?
LK: Directing your first film is definitely nerve-wracking and it's understandable. An issue may emerge from this: becoming greedy. If you see certain things at a location, you may wish to take more shots or try to express more. This easily throws you off track – it happens all the time. The experience this time is that we spent a few months to agree on a storyboard before the actual shooting. People may ask, "You need to know even the storyboard?" Production parameters demand that I know how many days of shooting and how much resources are needed. If the number of shots is more than planned, we may go over budget. It is not only about money. What if the actors are no longer available? That's why we have to make everything clear, with somebody in charge of storyboard and somebody in charge of the shot list. Before the actual shooting, we had the shooting script ready. Everything, including what the director is going to do, is agreed. After that, it's my turn to digest all that.
HKIFF: So you work with the director a lot on the pre-production, including the treatment for every scene?
LK: I think that if the director moves on to handle other projects or make other films, a preproduction that is not thoroughly carried out may lead to mistakes or omissions that have far-reaching impacts on the production. A new director's debut is like a warm-up exercise, but I would rather let this warm-up be more demanding so that the director has a chance at handling a bigger production in the future. I think that this could be helpful for the director. Of course, it would be a breeze if I could give the director free rein to do whatever he or she likes, but then the director will be under much greater pressure when he or she makes a larger-scale production in the future since he or she has no experience of going through a complete pre-production process. This is especially true under our current circumstance. It doesn't matter if you're working with a HK$ 5-million, 15-million or SO-million budget – everyone knows that new productions in Hong Kong are few and far between. I think that we have to make the most out of the chances we are given. It's not good enough to just finish a production; preproduction has to be meticulously prepared. Don't improvise and don't be greedy; be clear about what the film is setting out to do.
HKIFF: As a producer, you have another major role, which is to find investors. Based on your experience on the last few films you produced, is it difficult for you to find funding in Hong Kong?
LK: It is relatively difficult for this kind of subject matter. Films with an A-list cast made in the past five years need a bigger market, which is reasonable and absolutely understandable since there's a need to reduce the investment risk. So directors have to choose what kind of path they would like to follow. For films with a budget of HK$ 5 million or below HK$ 10 million, they don't have as much market pressure, but it will also be wishful thinking to expect well-known actors to take part. I would encourage them, telling them that making a film is not about how much money you spend, but whether you are capable of taking charge. If a director can let an actor or a new talent shine, that would be even better. This is what I say to investors – that if we are going for a large-scale production, we will have to accommodate to the market. I also try to convince investors to give everyone a chance at creating a niche for smaller productions, to make something that certain markets don't traditionally accommodate - this is what I have been trying very hard to do lately.
HKIFF: What kinds of scripts or subject matters interest you or easily strike a chord with you?
LK: I am more familiar with the place I live in. I want to talk about the lives of people. This is the case with Gallants, Get Outta Here and Time. These are all inspirational stories about the lives of people. Nowadays, I am not considering dark themes. I feel that we need to encourage people right now, to have something with true emotions. Films in recent years make people feel quite depressed, so I hope to make more optimistic films. With this film and the previous films, we dealt with harsh subject matters, like the housing issue being so serious that even vampires are homeless, or the issue of the elderly as in this film. But we are using a more cheerful approach, which would be easier for the audience to take in. I am also a member of the audience and I want to see something more light-hearted. Apart from staying true to its subject matter, I hope that the film does not leave the audience with a heavy heart when they step out of the cinema.
HKIFF: What kind of opportunities and challenges are new directors in Hong Kong facing?
LK: I think they have reasonably good opportunities. Given the poor economic situation these couple of years, the government is still giving support with the First Feature Film Initiative and funding ten projects with HK$ 8 million each. New directors have more opportunities to work now.
I think that what the audience needs now aren't just robots and anime. What about films like A Separation and Midnight Diner? Don't those film attract audiences, too? I think that we should nurture the audience's confidence in Hong Kong films. In addition to the content, the subject matter is also very important. What does the director want to say? Entertain the audience and also give them something to take away. To have something that resonates and lingers – that is very important.
HKIFF: So you are optimistic about the future.
LK: I am optimistic. There will always be someone to take up the task. I think that in the past decade or so, we have been nourished by films with the same pattern. In terms of creativity, it has influenced everyone, and the works have in turn become similar. This can be slowly fine-tuned. When everyone's creativity is unleashed, things will be all right again.
In the case of smaller productions, I think that there is need for substance, for the audience to resonate with it, and a bit of entertainment as well. These are the most basic things that need to be done.
Reprinted by kind permission of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society.