Simon Yam's directional debut in a horror film

Cinema still: Tales From The Dark starring Simon Yam.

HONG KONG - Whenever he travels, Hong Kong star Simon Yam always wears two watches. It has got nothing to do with making a fashion statement, even if he is widely considered to be one of the best-dressed actors of his generation.

"I wear two watches for my family," he tells Life! over the telephone from Hong Kong. "One is set to the local time of wherever I am and the other is set to Hong Kong time. That way, I'll know what my family is up to.

"Let's say it's the afternoon. Then I think my wife will be out shopping or having tea, so I can call her and ask her how she's doing. Or if it's during breakfast, I can call my daughter and chat a bit. My own time will always be synced to my family's time."

Speaking in a mix of Mandarin and Cantonese, he sounds hurried in this interview, rambling slightly as he shoots off well-rehearsed answers to any question about his debut directorial effort in the horror anthology, Tales From The Dark 1.

But when it comes to questions about his family, the 58-year-old slows down somewhat, and answers them with obvious warmth in his voice.

After 18 years of marriage to 45-year-old model Sophia Kao - better known as Qi Qi - Yam still appears to be very much in love. In an interview with Good Housekeeping (China) magazine in March last year, he called her his "dream lover" and said their relationship is "still very passionate".

He also clearly dotes on their daughter Ella, now eight, laughing easily whenever he talks about her.

"She thinks I'm a cop, not an actor," he says with a chuckle. "She'll see a movie poster that I am on and ask me what I'm doing. I'll say I'm playing a cop. Then she'll ask, 'So did you catch the bad guy?'"

In his career of more than three decades, Yam has played numerous cops, in such films as cult classic Naked Killer (1992), Man Wanted (1995), S.P.L. (2005) and Eye In The Sky (2007).

But as many of his films are considerably violent and bloody, there are very few of them that he will allow his daughter to watch. "She has seen only bits of PTU (2003) and she has seen Echoes Of The Rainbow (2010). I can't let her watch the others. I don't want her to grow up too fast."

While Yam hopes to do more "family movies" such as the family drama Echoes in future for Ella's sake, his latest project is another she will not be watching for a while.

Tales From The Dark 1 is a horror triptych based on stories by Hong Kong best-selling author Lillian Lee Pik Wah, whose writings had inspired films such as Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Stanley Kwan's tragic romance Rouge (1988).

Debutant director Yam helms the first short in the anthology, titled Stolen Goods, while the other two are directed by Lee Chi Ngai and Fruit Chan. The second part, Tales From The Dark 2, will be released next month.

Yam also stars in his segment, playing a poor and mentally challenged man who steals crematorium urns for ransom money from the dead's relatives.

For his directorial debut, it is surprising that he chose a genre he is not a fan of. "I don't watch horror movies because I'm not interested," says Yam, who accepted the job only because the author asked.

"If you had asked me to make a triad or cop movie, it would be quite easy. But doing a ghost movie - that's something I don't know much about. I didn't mind challenging myself to see what I could come up with."

But he admits he found the experience very tough. "I didn't sleep for 30 days because I couldn't stop thinking about the movie. I kept coming up with new ideas to see if I could make things better. I would wander the streets at night thinking about all these things. My wife thought I was sleepwalking."

Still, he would gladly put on the director's hat again. "Directing is fun. Of course, it's a lot more relaxing to simply be an actor. With directing, you see things from a different perspective in film. I don't mind directing again but maybe I should stick to something I am more familiar with. How about a horror movie featuring cops?" he says with a laugh.

His association with cops goes beyond his films. His late father was a policeman and his retired elder brother Peter Yam Tat Wing was deputy commissioner of the Hong Kong Police from 2007 to 2010.

What Yam has taken away from them and put into his cop roles is a "police spirit", he says.

"What I've learnt from my father and brother is that cops have this wonderful attitude about the work that they do. They have a respect for their work and they have a great work ethic, and I think I've tried to portray that in my cop roles.

"In life, I'm also very much influenced by that same spirit and work ethic. No matter what I'm doing, I try to do it to the very best of my ability." It is why even after so many years in the industry, he does not treat work lightly, not even when he has only a small role.

In a separate interview that Life! had with Hollywood star Keanu Reeves recently, the 48-year-old Canadian said that Yam offered assistance even when he was not asked to. Yam plays a cameo role - again as a cop - in Reeves' directorial debut Man Of Tai Chi, a gongfu flick now showing in cinemas.

Reeves said: "Simon Yam is just great. He agreed to do the role, told me his brother is a cop and gave me his number, telling me that I can call him up if I need help with learning about how the police force works in Hong Kong. I called his brother and we ended up having a three-hour chat. Simon is a huge movie star and he's only playing this small role in my movie, but he did so much more. I mean, wow."

For someone who is tall, suave and relatively fluent in English, Yam could have pursued a career in Hollywood like his compatriot Chow Yun Fat.

Yam starred in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life (2003) opposite Angelina Jolie but returned to Hong Kong cinema after that, making films such as acclaimed works Election (2005) and Nightfall (2012). Along the way, he has been noted for his performances, receiving a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor for Echoes Of The Rainbow and a Golden Horse Best Actor nomination for PTU.

"I don't want to stay in Hollywood, even though I've had script offers before. If I'm there, I can do only one or two movies a year and I don't want that."

"I'd rather do several movies every year, especially Hong Kong movies. A lot of people say that the Hong Kong film industry is dying but I don't believe that. I want to do whatever I can to stay in Hong Kong and make movies in this part of the world."

He adds that, ultimately, it is still proximity to his family that tops his priority list.

"I want to spend time with my family as much as possible. Whenever I'm away filming, say, in China, I try to fly home whenever I can to have dinner with them. If I'm in one city filming, I don't mind flying back to Hong Kong to spend a few hours with them, then return to the filming location the next day. It's tiring doing that. But it's totally worth it."

yipwy@sph.com.sg

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