The Ones That Got Away: Patrick Tam

Patrick Tam stopped making movies 17 years ago, after a career that established him as perhaps Hong Kong's leading director. His name is legend in world cinema. Now he has a new film, After This Our Exile. But he does not have a U.S. distributor. Neda Ulaby introduces us to Tam as part of our series on "the ones that got away."

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One of the best movies of 2007, according to some critics, was hardly seen by audiences in the United States. It's called, "After This Our Exile." And it's the work of director Patrick Tam. He's a legend in Hong Kong cinema, yet this is the first movie he has directed in 17 years. And he can't find a distributor here in the U.S. More, now, from NPR's Neda Ulaby.

(Soundbite of movie "After This Our Exile")

Unidentified Man: (Speaks in foreign language)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaks in foreign language)

Unidentified Man: (Speaks in foreign language)

NEDA ULABY: Maybe it's not hard to understand why "After This Our Exile" never found any serious traction here, says Grady Hendrix.

Mr. GRADY HENDRIX (Film programmer and critic): You can't say to someone, two hours and 40 minutes, Chinese people screaming at each other, subtitles, actors you've never heard of. That's really not going to pull people in no matter how good the poster looks.

ULABY: The movie got a few screenings across the country, including at the New York Asian Film Festival, which Hendrix co-directs. He says it was a hard sell for festival audiences at first, but rave reviews led to a waiting list for tickets.

Mr. HENDRIX: I've never known anyone to see this movie who didn't feel happy that they had seen it. They didn't feel like somehow they were better coming out than they were going in.

ULABY: "After This Our Exile" is about a poor Chinese family in Malaysia.

(Soundbite of movie "After This Our Exile")

Unidentified Man: (Speaks in foreign language)

ULABY: He's a cook, she's a bar girl. And their painfully disintegrating marriage is seen largely from the perspective of their 8-year-old son who descends into a life of petty crime with his dad. If that sounds a bit like "The Bicycle Thief," that classic of world cinema was part of Patrick Tam's self-education as a director. But Tam says "After This Our Exile" is different.

Mr. PATRICK TAM (Director, "After This Our Exile"): The film is not Italian neorealist kind of cinema. It's not about exterior poverty, about the materialistic side of life, but rather about spatiality, about the emotions. This is the thing that I would like to focus on. And I hope I can get through to the audience.

ULABY: Patrick Tam first reached audiences as part of a group that helped revolutionized Chinese film in the late 1970s. Some, like John Woo, were soon swanning around film festivals and, eventually, Hollywood. Tam stayed home. He edited movies for people like Wang Kar Wai, now a celebrated filmmaker himself. All the while, Tam directed his own movies. Even his martial arts films and thrillers were thoughtful and elegant and provoked audiences to rethink those genres. Then in 1989, he stopped directing.

Mr. TAM: Since I love cinema so much, I prefer not to make another meaningless or mediocre films for my audience, because if you're looking at cinema history, there's already a whole lot of movie junks there.

ULABY: Tam was unable to protect his movies from the kind of junk he hated. Although he was respected for his powerful style, connection with actors and subtle social critiques, he had to put up with Hong Kong studios flapping flashy endings on his films or inserting sensational scenes. Disillusioned, Tam moved to Malaysia where he worked with film students to develop the industry there. One of his students wrote the screenplay for "After This Our Exile."

(Soundbite of movie "After This Our Exile")

Unidentified Child: Mommy?

Unidentified Woman: (Speaks in foreign language)

ULABY: Film programmer and critic Grady Hendrix was apprehensive before sitting down to watch a movie described even by its director as long and depressing. But he was riveted from the very first scene.

Mr. HENDRIX: This young boy getting ready to go off to school. His mom signing off on his report card because he's failing his subjects. He leaves for school, comes back and sees that she's packing a suitcase to leave. He goes and tells his dad who's at work who comes home, drags the mother out of the cab and locks her in the house.

(Soundbite of movie "After This Our Exile")

Unidentified Woman: (Speaks in foreign language)

Unidentified Man: (Speaks in foreign language)

ULABY: Hendrix says it's the editing that makes the scene.

Mr. HENDRIX: Tam is one of the best editors, I would say, in all of Asia. And the edits are hitting off rhythm. They're coming too early. They're coming too late. They're coming in the middle of an action.

ULABY: Those edits give this family melodrama the intensity of a horror movie.

Mr. TAM: I tried to keep the emotional flow dynamic and energetic.

ULABY: Director Patrick Tam.

Mr. TAM: So everything that happens—but not too fast. You have to still have the space and time to really get your message across.

ULABY: Part of Tam's message is to present characters without judging them. People subject to forces they can't control and sometimes crumble beneath. Grady Hendrix says that goes back to Tam's early days working in Hong Kong TV where he wrote and directed dramatic series about social workers and regular working class men and women whose lives were not then normally explored on television. Hendrix says Tam finds such characters essential.

Mr. HENDRIX: They're doing the best they can in a world that really doesn't have any room for them. In a world that wants them to be a short-order cook or a bar girl or a bus driver. It needs to sort of keep these people in their place. And their place is killing them and it's breaking their souls.

ULABY: For Patrick Tam, "After This Our Exile" is the one film he has directed that hasn't broken his.

Mr. TAM: Even if I don't have any chance to make another film again, I'm quite satisfied with this one.

ULABY: "After This Our Exile" has won numerous awards at film festivals all over Asia. Tam says he doesn't mind that it has not found a distributor here.

Mr. TAM: I believe in the film. I mean, in all sincerity, I respect audience's intelligence. And I think everyone, every individual is sensitive to a certain extent if they see that what you're making or are presenting to them is a sincere and serious work, I think eventually they will be touched.

ULABY: Patrick Tam plans to keep teaching and making movies in Malaysia. He says the tropical climate is a hot house, both for his own creativity and for encouraging others. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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