Synonymous with Hong Kong movies by appearing in seemingly half of them, veteran actor Simon Yam tells us about his thespian secrets – and why he never gets tired of playing cops. Interview by Edmund Lee. Photography by Calvin Sit.
It’s always a refreshing pleasure to meet a celebrity who’s completely frank and genuine in conversation. Simon Yam Tat-wah – whose more than 200 movie roles in over three decades have ranged from straight cops and honest family men to sinister gangster bosses, glitzy gigolos and totally perverted criminals – is one of the few whose authenticity shines through every time we’ve hooked up. At times behaving like a well-dressed uncle who can’t stop philosophising about the world, the 56-year-old icon of Hong Kong cinema often demonstrates that rare quality among a distinguished bunch of movie stars: of leading an interview in all directions except, perhaps, the movie they’re actually promoting. Almost mirroring the all-embracing manner of his way of speaking, Yam’s professional career has led him to film projects from places as diversified as mainland China, Korea, France, Taiwan and Hong Kong in recent times.
In the upcoming movie Nightfall, the second directorial effort by Roy Chow Hin-yeung, Yam plays a hardened detective on the trail of Nick Cheung Ka-fai’s silent killer. It isn’t clear yet if the suspense thriller will prove to be as hysterious – sorry, we mean ‘hysterical’ – as the director’s first work, the Aaron Kwok-starring Murderer (2009). (Word behind the scenes is that the story does make sense this time around.) We sat down with Yam on a weekday afternoon to discuss kimchi, (always) playing policemen, and the flour in fish balls.
Did you watch Roy Chow’s last movie, Murderer, before you decided to take on this role?
Yes, I did. I think it’s an interesting movie. It’s interesting.
For many, it’s a movie with an impressive command of style and, sadly, quite a laughably ridiculous story.
Right. But everyone can improve. Of course he tried hard to impress with his first [directorial] effort. In Nightfall, he’s improved to the extent that he can now display the humanity involved.
Putting it the other way round, why do you think he cast you in Nightfall?
He thinks I… [pauses] can play this role. This is an extremely difficult role. I guess other actors might not be able to grasp the depth of this character. That’s why I kept thinking and telling him about the possibilities of the character.
Does your character have mental problems?
Well, to be honest, everyone in Hong Kong has mental problems due to the environment here. The policemen in the past might be doing fine, but the policemen now probably have problems. In the 1970s and 80s, they were only dealing with Cantonese-speaking people; whereas nowadays they’re dealing with people from Southeast Asia, from mainland China, from India, from Scandinavia, from Japan, from Korea. Hong Kong is such a welcoming society that… if these people break the law, in which language should a policeman talk to them? This is impossible! That’s why the Hong Kong policemen are getting more and more schizophrenic. As I’m aware of this situation, I decided to adopt this into my character in the movie to reflect Hong Kong’s history in the 2000s.
Is the language factor really that significant?
If you speak different languages, how do you communicate? Let me give you an example: a policeman walks into a cha chaan teng. On his left, a northerner is eating dumplings and speaking in a northern dialect. On his right, an Indian is eating curry. In the middle, a person is eating Hainanese chicken rice. On his right, a foreigner is eating a hamburger. Further to the right, [another person] is eating a pizza. Even further to the right, [yet another person] is eating kimchi. At the back, somebody’s eating udon. Damn it, who’s the thief? If all of them speak in different languages, how do you find out? This is exactly the idea I invested into my policeman character. I pose questions against common logics to decide who the thief is. The one eating kimchi is the thief. That’s my state of mind when I play this character.
Wow, I’m impressed by your imagination. Is this how you develop your character?
Yes, that’s how I develop this character. I’ve been involved in a lot of police dramas and a lot of triad movies. I’ve witnessed the changes of the times. Movies are very much a reflection of the contemporary culture of a society. I’ve adopted our way of thinking into this policeman character: he looks at things not only from one angle, but every angle. That’s why he always argues with his boss, because his boss interrogates the suspects in the traditional way, while my character immerses himself in the [mind of the] kimchi-eating [thief]. He will then tell you: one-month-old kimchi doesn’t taste very good, and nine-month-old kimchi is much more delicious.
You mean it’s down to experience?
I’m telling the kimchi-eating person, from my experience, that I know one-month-old kimchi doesn’t taste very good, that I know what he’s thinking. He can’t fool me. I’m using this very approach to play my role. It’s quite fun. As I always say, we’re not actors. We’re not acting. We’re living the characters in their time and inside their environment, and we’re using our body language to express that. By doing so, the movies will look good and our performances won’t go overboard.
You know, I’m concerned with your character’s mental state primarily because of how everything goes to hell in Murderer.
[My character] manages to find the truth [in Nightfall]. He does. [Yam, without any spoiler alert, tells us the entire ending of the movie – complete with his opinions about it.] At the end, I told the director that if I acted in this way, I could better express the pains of the contemporary policemen. And this isn’t restricted to the policemen: all the IT people – or even, all the Hong Kong people in general – are like this! The boss wants you to work 16 hours before going home, and when you go home, you still need to take your work home if you haven’t finished it. That’s what Hong Kong has become and that’s how the policemen come to work under such immense pressure.
You’ve played a lot of police characters throughout your career. Are you influenced by your family in any way (Yam’s father and elder brother both worked in the police force)?
Not at all. I’ve always liked playing policemen – or rather, I’ve always liked to observe people. When I talk to another person, I can easily enter his mind and understand what he’s thinking. This began with my photography practice: I’d sit in a stone forest and space out for two hours, contemplating why the stone forest is as it is. Many people take snapshots to show that they’ve been to a place but I’m not like that. I talk to the people at the places I visit. I have a good understanding of people’s lives, so I can portray my characters closer to life.
How involved do you get into your characters?
When I’m acting, I’m really living the lives of my characters – living is different from acting. That’s why all my police characters are different even though I’ve played so many of them; all my triad characters are different even though I’ve played so many of them, and that’s because I understand the lives of people.
You’ve indeed played a lot of them. Do you remember how many movies you’ve made?
Do you have an exact figure?
No, no. [Whispers] I can’t remember.
So which are your favourites?
I like Nightfall; I like PTU (2003); I like Election (2005), in which I played a psychologically complex character of few words; and I like Night and Fog (2009). As for the more flamboyant roles, I like Full Contact (1992). There are movies in which I played flamboyant, as in Casino (1998), and there are others where I could be psychologically complex. At the end, it’s simply a way of living – it’s a part of life. The lovely part about cinema is that I can become very different types of people and take on very different personalities.
Can you name a few of your works that might have been neglected by the audience and deserve a second look?
Night and Fog, SPL (2005): these are movies that the audience neglected.
Do you have a habit of watching your own movies?
Yes, yes, yes.
In what circumstances?
I watch them once in a while, once in a while. But every time I re-watch my films, I think I could’ve done better. That’s a reminder for me to get better.
Do you have a preference in the roles you play?
Of course I’m more interested in playing policemen.
Can I say that you’ve played the most law-enforcing characters among Hong Kong actors?
Yes. Policemen and triads – that’s the two I’ve played the most. Even on the first day I worked in a TV station at the very beginning of my career, I was already playing a policeman. I like playing policemen.
I’m actually really impressed with your versatility. You can play everything from policemen to total perverts.
Well, that’s proof that I love Hong Kong.
Eh, how so?
When you love Hong Kong, you want to present these real-life [criminal] stories in the movies, so that people 50 years from now can still witness our history. Not many actors share this mentality of mine: I want to preserve material from different eras in the movies.
So they’re like historical documents.
They are. And from these documents, people can see that I can play triads, policemen, perverts, gigolos, gay people. [In an excited tone] “Oh wow, he started out playing a gay character!” [Laughs] This actually reflects the changes of the times: when I played a gay character then, people on the streets wouldn’t even look me in the eyes – they hated gay people. But now, playing gay characters is no big deal.
As you just said, you’re one of the few actors who are equally at ease playing policemen and triads. What’s your secret?
I understand life. Now, I understand the lives of policemen very well, because you can see them everywhere on the street – and because of my family background too. As for triads, I know nothing about them – at all. But Hong Kong is a small place with lots of magazines and books. You can learn a great deal from them.
So you’re good at doing research?
I’m a great researcher, though I may not necessarily be researching directly [about my characters]; I may be researching about something else entirely. For my triad movies, I’ve researched about Apple and Starbucks, because I can put the philosophy of these large corporations into my characters.
What do you mean?
[My triad characters are] overweening. I’m a dictator – so I am and you must obey me. If you want to open a shop next to me, I’ll shut you down and not let you survive. Which is to say that I bring philosophies I read from books into my films. [In the case of] Apple: they don’t let you know about their latest model until the last minute; every screw in their appliances is assigned specific numbers and you can’t buy these screws from anyone except Apple. These theories can be utilised in the gangster movies: I don’t let them know which guy I’m going to chop up until the last minute. [Laughs] If I haven’t read those books, I wouldn’t have thought of these alternative ways to play my characters.
Are you the kind of person who thinks a lot?
I’m the kind of person who keeps learning. I keep learning about new things. I’m a person who knows about everything. Like I’ve always said, the computer is a great invention for us but, at the same time, I’m sorry that I don’t do all the funny and naughty stuff with it. I’m the one in control, not the computer.
Throughout your career, is there any aspect about you that might have been misunderstood by the public?
I’ve never cared about this.
How clear a line do you draw between your personal life and your professional life?
Very clear. I’m a simple man – but I do very complicated things. Moviemaking is very complicated. That’s why I need a simple personal life; otherwise, the two combined would make it far too complicated.
In your own mind, do you feel more like an actor or a celebrity? You’re certainly recognised everywhere now.
I feel that it’s just part of the job. I’m no different to anyone else. That’s why I can go to a beach and talk to the fish ball hawker there for half an hour. To me, we’re all the same. And I can learn about the difficulties of being a fish ball hawker – and how much flour to put in the fish balls too. I’d say: “Hey, your fish balls have too much flour in them!” “Wah Gor, fish is very expensive these days.” “Then you shouldn’t have set such a high price!” [Laughs] I think that’s how you can live happily, to learn about people’s lives.
Do you pay attention to the public gaze at all?
That’s not my goal in life. The most important thing is to be happy. I’m happy to find a job I like – and play policemen all the time.
Nightfall 大追捕 opens on Mar 15.