Dialogue with Nora Lam: Her Ways of Seeing

“Comparative Literature is where I learnt to see the world”

NORA LAM 林子穎 (BA 2017) is an independent filmmaker and the co-founder of Outfocus Productions. Her documentary feature Road Not Taken(未竟之路) (2016) had over 20 overseas and local festival screenings. Lost in the Fumes(地厚天高) (2017) won Special Jury Prize at the Taiwan International Documentary Festival 2018 and was one of the winners in Films of Merit at Hong Kong Film Critics Society Award 2018.


Unlike the chaotic intensity depicted in many youth films, life as a teenager is monotonous and repressed for Nora. She indulged in the boundless world of literature and cinema, becoming particularly drawn to the twentieth-century literature, period dramas and LGBT cinema. These works, however, didn’t allow a complete escape, for they portray a world that is distanced yet familiar. “They transport you to another world, but eventually pull you back to your world. They give you a new perspective; a new way of understanding a world you cannot change.”


Years later, her admittance into HKU brought along two experiences that have opened up her world in unimagined ways. Joining Campus TV as a student journalist marked the beginning of her journey in filmmaking. “2014 was a turbulent year for Hong Kong, but because of that I had many opportunities to see all kinds of things and people. All of a sudden I found myself in a bigger world, and that changed the way I understand things.”

Besides the exposure through filmmaking, Comparative Literature introduced Nora to unlimited ways of thinking and the possibilities of multiple interpretations. “The courses were thought-provoking and some ideas have shaped my beliefs and approach. For instance, in ‘Ways of Reading: Film, Literature and Culture’, Dr. Jason Ho introduced Barthes’s concept of ‘the death of the author’. This idea really speaks to me and to this day I consider my role and ‘intended message’ as insignificant, compared to what the audience thinks about it. I don’t have the authority to deliver a message; I just want to tell a particular story.”

What has been the most memorable, however, is not ideas from lectures or readings, but experiential learning activities. “In a course on New Cinemas, Prof. Gina Marchetti had us run an actual film festival on campus. It was 2015, when the Umbrella Revolution had just come to an end, so it was timely and sensible to have that as our theme. Our group was excited to be working on something we were interested in and good at.” The event was a success, attracting a hundred students and public visitors to attend the screenings of short films. The project experience also foreshadowed her relations with films and film festivals in the following years.

Through Her Lens, With Her Lens

As a filmmaker, Nora wishes that her work contains elements that the audience can relate to and find comfort in. “I hope to bring to them a new way of understanding their lives; and then with a sigh of relief, let go.” Within these five years of filmmaking, she has made a transition from journalism to documentaries, and from documentaries to feature films. As she develops different skill sets and brings different stories to screen, her perspective underlying these works reveals the same value and concern for particular social groups or individuals in society.

When the filming young activist Leung Tin-kei (梁天琦) and esteemed writer Lee Yee (李怡), the narratives are driven by the individual’s emotional life and personal experience. “In Lost in the Fumes, I could have explored issues like independence, China-HK relationship, which Tin-kei evokes and embodies. But I’m less interested in that than the emotions, choice-making and disillusionment he has gone through. Similar to the RTHK series on Asian writers, I chose to focus more on Lee Yee than the abstract theories and commentaries often associated with him.”

Defying mainstream narratives and cinematic conventions is another characteristic underlying her films. As Nora described, there was almost an “in-born” tendency in her to overturn existing narratives dominating the market, a tendency that may have roots in her personality and Comparative Literature training. “I am conscious of how the general public looks at a certain social group or issue, and the grand narrative that prevails. After knowing what the gaps are in that narrative, I want my films to fill them, returning a voice to those who should be represented in any entertainment and cultural text.” In her entry for the 13th Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival’s Call Girl and the Pimps (全部都係雞), she deliberately discarded the ways mainstream media have characterised part-time girlfriends or prostitutes.“

People often approach a piece of work or topic with a lot of fantasies or expectations. But there are always more layers to it, and fewer people, if not none, have worked on those. That’s the way I look at things and explore a subject matter,” she concluded.