"It was really very interesting to understand this person, because he became crazy. Because of the social problems of Hong Kong and everything that happened at that time." –Dr. Lamb co-director Billy Tang on Simon Yam's title character- (1)
"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." –Simon Yam on his Category III-rated movie vehicles
With the gifts of hindsight and received wisdom, we now know that Hong Kong has only had two serial killers, and Lam Kor-wan was one of them. Lam, a disturbed Hong Kong taxi driver, was arrested in 1982 after he tried to develop photographs of his four murder victims. He was alternately referred to as "The Jars Killer" and the "Rainy Night Butcher" in the mainland Chinese tabloids because of the time he chose to pick up and dismember his victims.
In 1992, a model turned TV actor played a character based on Lam and his crimes. The movie was called Dr. Lamb, and it was essentially a remake of "Female Butcher," a 1991 episode of the popular Cantonese-language Hong Kong Criminal Archives TV series, also starring Simon Yam. In both dramatizations, Yam plays Lam, an emotionally disturbed cab driver who, after living with his family in cramped Hong Kong tenements, takes out his frustrations on a couple of customers. The specific logic behind Yam's murderous character never really matters as much as how Lam's actions serve as an emblem of his sexually frustrated rage.
Lam's actions are, in both cases, also prefaced by formative childhood experiences: in a flashback, we see him spying on his parents when they have sex, leering at them through a crack in their bedroom door's frosted windows. "Female Butcher" focuses more on this formative scene: in a prefatory scene, Lam's mother protects him from an abusive father, who beats her soon after a young Lam bites her wrist after she and her husband have sex. Lam's mother then holds him in her arms in the middle of a wind-swept rainstorm on an exterior staircase. Category III expert Tony Williams argues that, while "the social environment clearly bears some degree of responsibility" for Lam's actions, "Hong Kong censorship would never allow any explicit commentary of that nature, suggestive elements function in an indirect and oblique manner throughout the narrative." (2)
Dr. Lamb focuses more on Lam as an open question mark. He's quickly arrested and detained by the Hong Kong police, whose comically inobservant and unprepared officers don't really seem to know what to do with him. But a timeline of events is established through flashbacks and procedural-style interrogations. They physically beat Lam savagely and repeatedly but cannot coerce a confession. He remains stoic when they attack his torso with hammers, the blows softened only by a thick phone book.
The cops are led by Inspector Lee (producer/co-director Danny Lee), who shares an uneasy and ultimately inexplicable bond with Lam, first established after Lee finds a newspaper clipping with his photo taped over Lam's bunk bed. When he asks Lam why he is interested in that case, Lam corrects him: he's interested in Lee because he had a feeling Lee would come for him. Dr. Lamb only ends after the cops discover the full extent of Lam's crimes, some of which he documented on the same kind of VHS tapes that he got caught trying to develop. Lee asks Lam, now in jail and sentenced to death, if he needs anything. "You're wasting my time," Lam pouts. (in real life, Lam Kor-wan was sentenced to life imprisonment). Lam does not perform medical operations, though he does wield a scalpel and consults with a medical anatomy book when he cuts off his victims' breasts and stuffs them in water-filled jars.
Dr. Lamb was a box office hit—$12.75 million in Hong Kong dollars, or, $27.6 million HKD today, about $3.5 million USD) one of the first for the Category III umbrella genre. It preceded The Untold Story by about a year and would go on to influence that movie and its director, Herman Yau, who would go on to helm Taxi Hunter— a Falling Down-style psycho-thriller starring Wong as a relatively sympathetic Travis Bickle-style cabby (his pregnant wife died while in labor!)
Dr. Lamb was also something of an anomaly since there wasn't any fictional precedent for this type of serial killer pic. In a special feature included on Unearthed Films' new Dr. Lamb blu-ray, Gilbert Po recalls suggesting a project like this to Danny Lee. To make his case, Po showed Lee Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which lee initially dismissed as being "too gory" and "not for Hong Kong." (3) There are also a few knowing comparisons between Lam and Psycho's Norman Bates throughout Dr. Lamb, which seems fitting since the makers of "Female Butcher" swipe a few iconic shots and tropes from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, whose real-life model, Ed Gein, also inspired Norman Bates and Psycho.
What distinguishes Dr. Lamb from "Female Butcher" and its American predecessors is its ambivalent depiction of the police officers, especially Inspector Lee's aloof surrogate father. These scenes have a little more bite and are more darkly humorous than The Untold Story's relatively broad police scenes. For instance, when laughably unconcerned cop Fat Bing (Kent Cheng), accidentally flings a severed human breast, from one of Lam's jars, onto fellow officer Emily Kwan's back. He warns her not to turn around, but she does, of course. In his vague secondary concern for Lee, it's easy to imagine that Lam is really hoping to catch the eye of a surrogate father figure. He wants to be understood by Lee or perhaps just to be seen, which adds an undertone of jet-black comedy to Dr. Lamb's procedural clowning. ("You can beat him later. Let's have a meeting!")
Yam appeared in several different kinds of post-Dr. Lamb Category III films, having played gigolos and romantic interests in several TV roles due to his earlier modeling career. But Dr. Lamb served as a sort of template for a kind of character that Yam played throughout the 1990s. His pathological behavior characterized by a bug-eyed stare and other childish or manic gestures, also inspired his performances in Category III shockers like Can't Stop My Crazy Love For You, where Yam plays a stalker who rapes the object of his obsession, TV news reporter (Yvonne Chung). Yam also plays an emotionally withdrawn man whose wife tries to exonerate him in the brisk courtroom drama The Final Judgement. He's also a frustrated medical doctor turned reluctant murderer in Trust Me U Die, also known as The New Dr. Lamb (though the relatively tame Trust Me U Die was only rated Category IIB)
In both cases, Yam plays a semi-tragic figure who tries to express his frustration by murdering other innocent Hongkongers. Trust Me U Die only concludes after Yam's character concedes that he might have gone too far in trying to use human patients as test subjects for his unapproved medical trials. Can't Stop My Crazy Love for You only ends after Yam's delusional creeper is violently dispatched.
Yam's tortured characters are also often notably conflicted or traumatized about their masculinity, even outside the horror/thriller genre. In the delirious lesbian assassin thriller Naked Killer, Yam plays a cop who can't fire his gun without wanting to vomit. And in the deranged hostage thriller A Day Without Policeman, Yam must get over a trauma related to a bad experience that has since incapacitated him whenever he thinks about AK-47 rifles. Yam's also notably the good guy love interest in Raped By An Angel, which mainly sticks out since Yam plays a triad gangster in that one. In real life, Yam has sometimes complained that he had to act in some Category III movies because of pressure from triad mobsters, who "force me to make some movies I don't like": "Hong Kong is so small, and they can get you very easy." (4)
After Dr. Lamb, Yam's most substantial villainous role is probably as a shell-shocked Vietnam vet in Run and Kill, helmed by Dr. Lamb co-director Billy Tang, who also produced "Female Butcher." Yam plays Ching Fung, an alienated Mainlander and the brother of a gangster who's only tangentially related to Cheung (Kent Cheng), an anxiously married man who, in a fit of alcohol-hastened pique at the Bar 1997, sics a dangerous mobster on his wife. Run and Kill ultimately boils down to an unhinged, horrific confrontation between Cheng and Yam's respective characters: Ching Fung wants to kill Cheung because he associates Cheung with the gangster who killed Cheung's wife, who's also the man who killed Ching Fung's brother, Panther (Melvin Wong). Cheung wants to destroy Ching Fung because (MAJOR SPOILER) Yam's character sets his young daughter Pinky on fire.
In interviews, Tang gives a little insight into where Yam's haunted, sweat-soaked character comes from. Like Kuei Chih-hung before him, Tang sought out the humanity in his "socially realistic" psychos. He suggests that Yam's Run and Kill character feels isolated given the discrimination that he would have routinely faced, given his half-Vietnamese, half-Chinese background. "He has no more hope in anything," Tang says. "The only thing he that he thinks about is his dead brother. It's a revenge based on desperation." (5)
Tang also reads Ching Fung's chosen profession as a reflection of his character-defining desperation, people who became "professional killers" because "they didn't have a choice." That motive suggests that, even beyond Dr. Lamb, Yam's influence can be seen in latter day Category III movies like Dog Bite Dog, which pits a corrupt Hong Kong cop (Sam Lee) against a mute Cambodian killer (pop singer Edison Chen). Chen's withdrawn character is treated with the same psychological realism as Yam's in Run and Kill, right down to his inability to feel remorse or regret for all the merciless killings he gets involved in ("If he was brought up this way, he's not human. Killing means nothing to him.”) And while Dog Bite Dog might not be a straight-up horror movie, all of Chen's victims die like Herschell Gordon Lewis's on-screen victims—in pain and with their eyes wide open. Yam may have successfully escaped his Category III past, but you can still see the types of characters he used to play lurking around the margins of more recent Hong Kong cinema.