In the history of Hong Kong Film Awards, Becky Lam (林碧琪 – Cantonese: Lam Pik-Kei; Mandarin: Lin Biqi) set two records which will be difficult to break: one, she is still the youngest Best Actress winner, being just 17 at the time she received the award; and two, she made only one movie, the one for which she took the award. But this is not a story of career failure; rather, it is one of life success.
[right, Becky Lam in a still from "Pretty Sister"]
In the late 1970s, a succession of enthusiastic young people began entering the Hong Kong movie community, people who loved movies and had received Western film educations. Their arrival injected massive doses of new creative ideas and skills into the local film industry and its social culture, contributions which came to be called the "New Wave." By 1982, Hong Kong cinema's "New Wave" was in full flower.
Within a few short years, this movement had turned out a batch of fresh and new productions, successful and popular films like Patrick Tam's "Nomad," Clifford Choi's "Encore," Tsui Hark's "Don't Play With Fire," and Ronny Yu's "The Servant." These and other "New Wave" films quickly propelled Hong Kong movies into a Golden Age of filmmaking, and put Hong Kong at the summit of Asian filmmaking by the end of the 1980s.
Becky Lam was presumably unaware of these things in 1982. She was at that time a 16-year-old, not getting along well at home and in no mood for schoolwork, someone who became what was called a "pretty sister," (a troubled young girl who spent most of her time hanging out in the streets). But one ordinary day she was spotted by director David Lai, an event that changed her life forever.
David Lai was himself a motion picture newcomer in 1982, having just followed his mentor, producer Johnny Mak, from television to movie competition. Their first big screen effort, produced by Mak and with Lai directing, was an examination of the social problem of rootless young people, to be called "Pretty Sister".
Producer and director were of one mind about the nature of "Pretty Sister": it would be something unprecedented in Hong Kong movie history, a semi-documentary filmed and recorded entirely on the city streets where its story unfolded, and with acting newcomers filling the roles. So David Lai began hanging out in the streets of Hong Kong, patiently seeking and recruiting some attractive and personable "pretty sisters" for his cast, including two girls named Lam Pik-Kei and Wan Pik-Ha, who would become known as Becky Lam and future star Irene Wan. The streetwise young Lam was totally unimpressed at the prospect of just being in a movie, and declined to participate unless she was cast in the lead role. Director Lai was so certain of his choice that he not only readily agreed to this, he also acceded to her demand that she be given leeway to alter the script when she thought it appropriate.
When it hit the theaters, "Pretty Sister" created an unprecedented stir throughout Hong Kong society and its film community. It did better than HK$10 million at the box office, putting it in 9th place among Hong Kong's top 10 money-earners that year (all films, not just Hong Kong productions). This success was in spite of the film's gloomy, cold and cheerless atmosphere, the limits placed on it by on-location filming, and its bold and ultimately controversial exposure of one of society's darker aspects. Even its theme song, "Freedom is in my Hands" was banned from air play because of suspicions it encouraged teenagers to run away from home. However, the movie found its audience, its semi-documentary approach and the director's style drawing favorable comments from public and critics alike, and "Pretty Sister" is still regarded as one of the most representative of the Hong Kong "New Wave" movie productions. Screen novice Becky Lam's performance was widely acclaimed as perfectly portraying the image of a girl sinking steadily into decadence, someone stubborn and arrogant, yet fatalistically resigned to her fate and to her helplessness to avoid it. Perhaps her understanding of the character's psychology grew out of her own existence as a "pretty sister," in effect playing herself. After seeing 'Pretty Sister," major director Li Hanxiang was lavish in his praise for Becky Lam, going so far as to assert that "Everyone is today proclaiming her China's Momoe Yamaguchi [the hot young Japanese star of the '70s], but I believe that someday Momoe Yamaguchi will be called Japan's Becky Lam!" (1)
At the 2nd Hong Kong Film Awards ceremony in 1983, honoring the film achievements of the previous year, it was announced that "Pretty Sister" had placed 2nd in a fan vote of the 10 most popular Chinese language films, and was nominated for 8 awards, including Best Picture. Becky Lam was nominated for two awards, Best Actress and Best Newcomer, and walked off with both.
After her Best Actress award, film newcomer Becky Lam clearly had a brilliant future in movies. But Lam's rebellious personality was unchanged by fame, and she remained the independent, even detached, person she had been all along. At events publicizing the movie she became something of a headache for her director and producer, attending but sometimes not saying anything, and sometimes leaving midway through the event, for no apparent reason.
But while the success of "Pretty Sister" brought Lam numerous offers of movie contracts, it also brought her an offer she couldn't refuse. At one publicity event, she was introduced to a handsome young man from a prominent Hong Kong musical family, the younger brother of famous Filipino-Chinese singer/actress Teresa Carpio. It was love at first sight, and when he proposed she unhesitatingly accompanied him to the marriage hall and never looked back, bidding farewell to movies once and for all, and trading a promising career for the peaceful and comfortable life she had probably wanted all along. Once again, she had done it her way.
Stardom is so often such a fleeting thing, and when a budding star disappears prematurely it can bring feelings of regret for what was lost. But in this case, where the star has voluntarily departed in pursuit of happiness, the ending is more satisfying than many of the movies we see, including some she might have gone on to make.
(1) Neither of Li Hanxiang's statements came true: in an ironic twist, Japanese singer-actress Momoe Yamaguchi soon retired from show business for the same reason as Becky Lam: marriage and family]