US-China Today chatted with Thomas Lim to learn about his move from international actor to acclaimed director, the political climate in Macau and his plans for the future.
As a child, Singapore-born director Thomas Lim was inspired by Hong Kong cinema; several decades later, he would make his own mark on the field with his directorial debut film Roulette City. In the 2012 film, Tak (also played by Mr. Lim) travels to Macau with his uncle to gamble in hopes of earning enough money to help pay for his mother’s medical bills. Instead, his uncle succumbs to the greed of the gambling world. Having lost his money and his uncle, Tak returns to his mother in the mainland. Several months later, she succumbs to her health, and Tak returns to Macau for the only other person in the world he is close to: the very woman who led his uncle to ruin. Roulette City’s look at temptation in Macau is both enthralling and, at times, heartbreaking. The film has been widely lauded in Macau, and has been released internationally in Singapore and Japan. US-China Today had the chance to sit down with Mr. Lim and see how he moved from international actor to acclaimed director, the political climate in Macau and his plans for the future.
How did you first become interested in directing?
In 1999 I became an actor for theatre in Singapore. Then I went to London to read theatre to take it seriously. And then after that, I moved to Beijing. I lived in Beijing for four years to become a TV and film actor. When I was acting I found that an actor’s position is usually passive. That’s the nature of the job of an actor – they are reliant on their agents and can’t be too proactive, because the air of mystique is very important for the overall image of an actor. But my character is such that I like to be more proactive and create my own stuff, so I thought about directing. Also, at that time, I was in my late 20’s and my peers were starting to direct their first films, and they were gaining success in film festivals. So I decided to do directing. I feel that by being an actor or a director, I’m choosing a different tool to express myself to my surroundings at that current moment.
What film or director has been most influential along the way?
I grew up watching Hong Kong films a lot, like Andrew Lau’s. He was doing the Young and Dangerous series. I love Hong Kong movies, and as I got older I got exposed more to house movies and non-mainstream movies, so that’s when I started to watch like Taiwanese movies. And I think more importantly, when I was an actor, I observed how the directors around me worked, so it was a combination of a lot of different people that I watched or that I worked with, so no one in particular.
You mentioned that it’s not easy to make money in the film industry. Did you run into any problems generating funds for Roulette City? Or any general problems making the film?
General problems? There were a lot. Because at the time I didn’t know how to write a script. So I was in many ways learning by doing. And that’s my favorite way to learn something. Because I feel that if you learn by doing, it runs in your blood after that, and you will not forget it. And you know all the practical stuff of making a film. I think for example, that’s how industries like the Hong Kong film industry came about. They didn’t go to film school so to speak, they learned by doing and learned by the older people mentoring the younger people.
Funding-wise it was my first film so it was not easy to get funding at all. But thankfully, when I was an actor, I had people who believed in me, so they gave me a little money to shoot it. And I didn’t even know how much would be enough to make a film but what I knew was, if I continued to wait, then maybe the resources, especially in terms of the funding I was waiting for, may or may not come. And that’s how a lot of directors never make their films. Waiting kills passion, and it kills moment, and it kills the desire to create more. I think most importantly was a deadline. I gave myself a realistic deadline and by then I would have to shoot the film. Once you give yourself a deadline, you’ll be amazed how things you never expect to come start to come together, in terms of people, in terms of other resources. I tried to use the problems to my advantage.
About Roulette City itself, how did you come up with the story?
At the time, the casino industry was at its peak, maybe even still rising. So what I was really observing was shown in the film, a lot of Macau residents were becoming wealthier because they were doing jobs related to the industry, sometimes working directly in the casinos. And Macau people are generally content people. So they suddenly had a lot of money in their pockets. And then, I do see a lot of mainland Chinese people crossing the border and crossing the border is an easy thing to do. Macau is very small; wherever you are within the peninsula, you can literally walk and cross over to China. When you cross over to China, life is a lot rougher. And now Macau is becoming rougher too because of the density of the population and rising cost of living. At the time it was still sort of laid back, so the existence of the casinos created this contrast between what it provided for the Macau residents to become a lot wealthier than they were before, and the chance to change your life overnight.
You mentioned that, at the time the film was being produced, that was about 2009-2010. That was the height of the casino industry. In your film, Armanda was concerned about the future of the casino industry, saying that she wanted to go back to school because she wasn’t sure if this was sustainable. Do you think this reflects a reality in Macau? Do you think there may be concern about a decline in the industry?
At the time, I think some people were concerned. But I’m not sure what kind of actions they were taking in response to that concern. Because this is something that has never happened to Macau, so they couldn’t prepare themselves based on experience, if the industry does decline.
In the past few years we’ve seen a rise in protests in Hong Kong, recently it was the Umbrella Movement, which I believe was rooted in underlying fears of encroachment by Beijing. But you haven’t seen anything like this in Macau, or at least I haven’t read anything about it, protests or action. Is that partly attributed to the general mood of Macau residents?
I think so. In my opinion, the difference between Hong Kong and [Macau] is quite big, both in terms of the way people are. Hong Kongers in my opinion are very opinionated and express their opinions freely. Macau residents would be more passive in that sense, so they would be more “home-y,” they like to get together with friends. The atmosphere is very cozy all the time. And one thing that-I don’t know if they still do it now, back then, a small problem that I met while I was filming Roulette City was, a lot of people in certain days of the week, they have to take like between 6:30-9pm off, because they have to have dinner with their mothers. And I thought, “what?” and then later on I learned that it’s a culture, that they do it all the time. So if you want to have coffee with them or meet them in the evening, it will have to be after dinner, because they have to have dinner with their mothers first. It’s not every day, it depends on the individual. They appreciate the people around them. And they like to get together. The theater industry in Macau is also very small. And what they do is, I kinda feel that, often times, the theater showcases are a social event. So everyone gets together for drinks and has a good time.
What about their attitudes toward the mainlanders coming into Macau?
I think they are more accepting…well I’m not sure if accepting is the right word, but I think they understand that what they are enjoying now…because all of a sudden they’re having fancy meals in casino restaurants all the time. Because back then there were not so many casinos, and so nowadays their lives are different mostly because of the existence of casinos which is because of the existence of the Chinese gamblers from mainland china. They do have their own ways of protesting, so to speak, for example they say things on Facebook about the Tiananmen massacre they do that every year, so things like that. They are still very much tightly knit communities.
What do you hope that audiences, after seeing your film, take away from it? What are some overlying themes that you hope to convey in the film?
I think that one of the themes is that, when faced with temptation, people change. I always feel that we ourselves do not know what temptations we’ll fall for until it happens to us. But above all, love is more important than money and lust. Tak was the one who was holding on to what he thinks is emotionally value, even though it’s leading him down the wrong path. So what do I hope that people take away from it? Maybe be careful what temptations you fall for. Because also the term “Roulette City” just means Macau. So first of all, in Chinese, “Lun Pan” just means roulette, no city. But then in Chinese the name has the meaning of karmic return to whatever you do comes back to you. And I think the city of Macau is filled with temptations these days. The city is quickly changing because the people who are visiting today are there for the fun that it offers.
How do you see Macau changing in the next 10 years?
I think Macau’s fate will really depend on China’s policies and regulations. Because Macau doesn’t have a financial center, the financial center is in Hong Kong. So if China wants more people to go gamble in Macau, they loosen up the visa regulations, Macau will prosper even more. If they start tighten it, which I think they are doing with the anti-corruption campaign, the tap is slowly closing. With that, then, I even hear now that casinos are laying off people already. The irony is that they continue to build casinos, but then the demand is not so much there anymore. So instead, some people from the existing casinos are being laid off because they are trying to cut down.
I go back every year, and from what I hear, the situation now is more “normal” than before. Before, it was like Armanda’s situation: leaving school. Or choosing not to go to school. That’s abnormal. But nowadays, more normal. They expect the cost of things to go down slightly, because it has been skyrocketing the past couple of years. And I hear the wages of the people, the percentage of the increase of people’s wages are not the same as the price increase. But all of a sudden, with the influx of the casinos, suddenly people were earning a lot more at the time. And then that never really increased. But they still have a lot…Macau is unique in the way that it is very small. So people have a lot of vacations for some reason. So people are not, how do I say, I shouldn’t say that they don’t work hard, but they are not very intense in terms of working hard. Like Hong Kong people are.
What’s next for you?
I just finished directing a new film, Sea of Mirrors, in Macau. The experience of Roulette City was a very tough one. At the time, I decided I’m not going to make a film at such a low budget anymore. So now I have a little bit more in terms of resources. Through the years, I decided I have to shoot a new film. I gave myself a deadline, and then the resources started coming in. The press is once again very supportive.
How are you going to use what you learned making Roulette City in your upcoming movie?
Every place has benefits and shortcomings. I learned about the benefits I can get from shooting in Macau. I would try to use that to my fullest. Not only to benefit me, but to benefit the people who are working with me, and I think that’s very important. This time around, I’m going to be better prepared.