Dr Herman Yau Lai-to
Honorary University Fellow (2019)
Dr Herman LT Yau is a renowned director, and an icon of Hong Kong cinema best known for his bold choice of themes and extraordinary cinematography. Daring to challenge authority and tackle sensitive subjects, his world of cinema knows no boundaries. To make hearts sing is the ultimate and only goal of his films.
A prolific director, Dr Yau has made more than 100 films over the past 32 years, many of them tapping into the soul of Hong Kong. He tells the stories of this city in its most primal form, from romantic, fresh love in 77 Heartbreaks, to the harsh realities of sex work in Whispers and Moans. His characters are complex yet raw, from the warped psyche of a murderer in The Untold Story, to the disciplined mind of a kung fu master in The Legend Is Born: Ip Man. He sees the yin and yang of life in a great metropolis, from the greed and selfishness shown in The Leakers, to the bravery and sacrifice of law enforcement officers in the police force and the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
While box office takings and awards are traditionally used to measure the success of a film, Dr Yau has his own beliefs and philosophy. He describes himself as “an honest Hong Kong movie maker”. By that, he means that he wants to tell the real story of Hong Kong, warts and all. What lies at the heart of his art is a focus on people and narrative, as Dr Yau believes that “the stories and characters must first move its creator before you can hope to move your audience”.
Nevertheless, Dr Yau’s films have been recognised both locally and worldwide. He was nominated for the Best Film and Best Director prizes at the 37th Hong Kong Film Awards for Shock Wave. The Hong Kong Film Critics Society named 10 of his films as Films of Merit. His 2001 film, From The Queen To The Chief Executive, was shown in the Panorama section of the 51st Berlin Film Festival and received the Golden Torch Award from the International Catholic Organization for Cinema and Audiovisual. In 2007, Dr Yau was named Fanta Master at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, as well as the Director in Focus at the 31st Hong Kong International Film Festival. For Dr Yau, his success boils down to a great deal of work and a sliver of luck.
Dr Yau developed much of his passion for film during his undergraduate days at the then Hong Kong Baptist College. He started off in journalism, but then switched to film in year 2. It was his teachers’ belief in the art form that made him see a future for himself in the industry. In the 1980s, a golden era of Hong Kong cinema, Dr Yau, at age 26, became one of the youngest directors to be involved in a full-length feature film.
Dr Yau has played a pivotal role in nurturing the next generation of Hong Kong filmmakers through his engagement with universities and organisations related to film and culture. He has provided generous support to HKBU’s Academy of Film as an adjudicator, advisor, consultant, guest lecturer and workshop host. His mentorship and industry network are valuable assets to the Academy as it continues to play a major role in HKBU’s strategic Creative Media and Practice research cluster.
For seven consecutive years, from 1996 to 2002, he was a member of the jury panel for the Hong Kong Arts Centre’s Incubator for Film and Visual Media in Asia awards. He has also been an art advisor in Film and Media Arts for the Hong Kong Arts Development Council since 2003, offering professional advice and support to the developing sector.
As the Hong Kong film industry undergoes a transformation, young talents are finding it harder to enter the industry, especially when compared to its golden era. Dr Yau’s advice to aspiring filmmakers is simple: just keep at it. Film-making is about teamwork. Be humble and take on whatever role is offered, just to get a foot in the door.
To Dr Yau, film is much more than a medium to tell stories. It is a lifestyle, an attitude, as well as a tool to move people. Not everyone enjoys the long hours needed to make a movie. But for Dr Yau, it’s similar to how football fans think about important matches. You might be exhausted from the previous day, but you get up early in the morning because you are excited to play.
Away from the film set, Dr Yau is also a prolific writer, as he sees writing as another way to tell his stories and settle his mind. His writings cover a wide range of topics: he said in a book on his other passion, rock and roll music, that the essence of the genre lies in “one’s stance and attitude”. A book on the reflection and practice of culture as a film director unfolds his reading and analysis of the history of Hong Kong, its identity and social issues. The father of one daughter, Dr Yau has also written about his observations and joy in parenting in another book about his daughter. He also founded two local magazines to promote the Hong Kong film industry and encourage the exchange of ideas.
Life has limits but knowledge has none. Dr Yau found himself asking “What is culture?” and decided to carry out some academic research on the topic. He completed his master’s in Cultural Studies in 2008, followed by a PhD in Cultural Studies in 2015 from Lingnan University, exhibiting the spirit of life-long learning.
In recognition of Dr Yau’s contribution to the film industry, the University bestows upon Dr Herman Yau Lai-to an Honorary University Fellowship.