Summer of Sammo: Nomad

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

Taking the Summer of Sammo in a new direction, I’m trying to catch up with the Hong Kong New Wave, of which Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark and such are tangentially related, but with which I’m pretty unfamiliar outside of the action genres. This Patrick Tam film defies easy genre labeling. For much of its run, its feels like a slice of life teenage film, not unlike American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused or Metropolitan, but more in the style of later Taiwanese directors like Edward Yang or Hou Hsiao-hsien (though without their rigorously distanced visual style). It follows the romantic lives of four young Hong Kongers: Louis (Leslie Cheung) and his friend (cousin?) Kathy (Pat Ha) are rich and Tomato (Cecilia Yip) and Pong (Ken Tong) are poor, but after some very funny meet cutes (Pong and Kathy at a pool, Pong and Louis fighting outside a record store (they all love David Bowie), Louis watching Tomato juggle boyfriends over a pair of telephones) they all become friends and lovers. The first hour or so of the film follows their budding romances and friendships, pitted against the peculiar environments of the city (an empty double decker bus provides a better make-out space than a tiny apartment cramped with relatives and mah jong tables).

Hints are given of the political context of the time, first in the haunting recordings Louis listens to of his mother, a classical music DJ, saying farewell to her family on air, presumably just before she’s carried off by the Cultural Revolution, and later in the character of Shinsuke, an old boyfriend of Kathy’s who shows up having deserted from the Japanese Red Army, a communist terrorist group (to put it simply) that is now hunting him. The film’s deeply unsettling conclusion arrives as a clash between these two worlds. The kids’ romantic getaway, lushly and stylishly photographed, self-concsiouly arty in contrast to the more immediate realistic style of the earlier sections of the film, is interrupted by a spasm of violence, both ultra-modern and ancient in its form and politics. Youth a romantic dream shattered by ugly reality.

It’s easy to see the influence this must have had on Wong Kar-wai, the early sections evoking the mood and style of the romantic interludes of As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild (which shares a star, Leslie Cheung, already as sad as he is lovely) while the disruptions of violence prefigure the war between genre conventions and art romance that dominate Wong’s early films. Like Days, the past in Nomad is largely an unspoken thing, a gap in history that undergirds the seeming aimlessness of its characters. I can’t wait to see where Tam went from here, though he doesn’t seem to have a prolific career, he did work as an editor on Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time and Johnnie To’s Election.


8 thoughts on “Summer of Sammo: Nomad

  1. I love Nomad, one of my fave films that never get discussed anywhere. Tam is a very unusual director for Hong Kong, as he is much more of an art film director than a genre one, so must of his films have a lot of give and take with generic expectations. I guess he kind grew tired of it by the end of 80's so he retired fo teaching. His 2005 comeback After This, Our Exile is terrific.

    My understand is that Wong brought him in Days of Being Wild editing room because he was unhappy with the early editing process and need an outsider imput and he ended up editing the film (from interviews it seens Tam come up with the flash forward in the beggining and convinced Wong to embrace the elliptical structure).


  2. Will check that one out for sure. I'd never heard of Nomad before you published that big list, Filipe, and I'm baffled as to why. I can see why it wouldn't be a big audience favorite (with that ending!) but it needs a much bigger critical rep. Someday some enterprising DVD company is going to gather and restore these films. But if even the Hou hsiao-hsiens of the world can't get distributor respect, how can the Patrick Tams or Stanley Kwans? Sigh.

    That's great to hear about Tam and Days. One of the things I like most about diving into cinematic subcultures like this is learning about all the little connections between filmmakers, seeing a whole community at work.


  3. Tam could definitely use a good box set. I know Stephen Teo and Olaf Moeller are fans but otherwise he doesn't seem to get much western critical rep. There's usually some mention to Final Victory (because Wong Kar wai script) and My Heart is a Eternal Rose often gets mentioned as one of the best heroic bloodshed films (Zach Campbell post some great stills from it in his blog a week ago), but that's pretty much it.


  4. The violent ending to the film is not Patrick Tam's, nor is the final cut. The studio took the film away from him and another director shot the end on the beach and someone else edited the movie apparently without Tam's input. Tam disowned the movie at its premier and has really had nothing to do with it since. The film as it exists on DVD today is missing some key footage of the sexual encounters of the key characters (the censors deemed them too racy for the early 1980s Hong Kong). A fuller version of it aired at Udine a few years ago and there rumors a more “complete” version of the film would be released on DVD, but it never saw the light of day. Some of the excised footage can be still be found on YouTube, I believe.


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