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Andy Lau - The Face Of Hong Kong

Written by Alison Jobling Tell a Friend

Andy Lau Tak Wah is something of an icon in Hong Kong. He's appeared in more than one hundred films, and several TV series. He's one of the "Four Heavenly Kings" of Cantopop. He's the pitch man for a variety of consumer goods. He has appeared in several public service advertisements. Everywhere you go in Hong Kong, you'll see his face: in DVD shops, music stores, on billboards and on television. And it's a very recognisable face: aquiline nose, high cheekbones, a jawline so sharp you could shave with it.


Lau was born on September 27th 1961. On finishing school he enrolled in the TVB acting academy, where he learnt acting and martial arts. His first movie role was in Ann Hui's gruelling Vietnam piece Boat People (1982). This role as an inmate of one of the grim internment camps, forced to crawl over the fields finding unexploded mines, must have been a challenging one. Lau rose to the challenge and gave a fine performance, which served him well in later years.

He gained critical attention, and a 'Best New Actor' nomination, for his performance in Wong Kar Wai's first work As Tears Go By (1988), in which he starred opposite Maggie Cheung. He played a low-ranking triad member, dealing with an uncontrollable 'younger brother' played by Jacky Cheung, another Heavenly King. He would work with Jacky Cheung again, also in the triad genre, in the byzantine Jiang Hu (2004), a world of betrayal and violence and opulent velvet suits.


He also gained renown for his performance as the doomed hero of Benny Chan's A Moment Of Romance (1990). The iconic character of Wah Jai, astride his motorbike with a girl in a wedding dress riding pillion, has appeared in several other films, most recently in Johnnie To's box office hit Needing You.

Andy's motorbike skills were put to use again in the action drama Full Throttle (1995), in which he played a mechanic and road racer dealing with injury, a dysfunctional family, and challenges from an upcoming racer. This performance also received a nomination for Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards, but again he was unsuccessful.


His performance as the fisherman who becomes entangled with a royal plot in the tragic wuxia Moon Warriors (1992) was also noteworthy. And here we see Lau's dedication to veracity: while making this film, he spent some time with one of the more unusual cast members, a killer whale, riding it like a horse and cavorting with it in the ocean. As a result, he developed an interest in ocean life, and now supports a charity dedicated to marine preservation.


Moon Warriors, Eddie Fong's Kawashima Yoshiko (1990), and Corey Yuen Kwai's Saviour Of The Soul ((1992) all feature Lau and actress/singer Anita Mui, who was often called 'The Madonna of Hong Kong'. Saviour Of The Soul is a minimalist fantasy with action and romance sub-themes, featuring actor/singer Kenny Bee and yet another 'Heavenly King' Aaron Kwok. The final fight, involving Andy, Aaron, a flexile sword, a mirror, and assorted onlookers, is frenetic wire action with trademark Yuen Kwai comic moments.


Lau has a deft touch with comedy. Tricky Brains (1991), a Wong Jing urban comedy starring Lau and Stephen Chow Sing Chi, pitted Andy as (exceedingly) straight man against Chow's jokester/hero, supported by frequent Chow sidekick Ng Man Tat. Handsome Siblings (1992) is a wuxia/action/romance/comedy, which gave him the chance to work with the Taiwanese legend Brigitte Lin Chin Hsia, as well as Francis Ng Chun Yu. Future Cops, the 1993 futuristic comedy starring Lau, Jacky Cheung, Ekin Cheng, and others, allowed him to demonstrate a naive goofiness that is quite charming.


In an industry known as hard-working, Andy still stands out. Early in his career, he was given mostly action hero or romantic lead roles. And following the advice of Chow Yun Fat, he took any and every role, sometimes working on three films in one day, sleeping a few hours in his car between jobs. More recently, while working on the gritty triad drama Century Of The Dragon (1999), Andy was also performing every night in his '99 concert tour. Not only did this take a lot of time and energy, it also wreaked havoc with his hair: his role as Fei Lung (Flying Dragon) in the film required black hair, while his concerts required blond. So every morning his hair was dyed black, and every evening it was bleached blond.


Andy's career includes a lot of triad films: A Moment Of Romance and As Tears Go By, his earliest, showed his talents at playing the 'angry young man', a minor triad member, while his later films, such as Jiang Hu, Century Of The Dragon, and Shanghai Grand (1996), promoted him to triad boss. In these later films, he demonstrates a commanding character and a presence that is totally credible, and even a little frightening.


His career as a singer has been largely due to hard work and perserverance. When he began, he was told he'd never be successful: his voice was too harsh for Hong Kong audiences, who preferred the softer, more romantic, tenor voices. Nonetheless, he continued, and is now one of the most popular singers in Asia.


A star of his magnitude might be expected to behave like a diva. Not Andy: there are no sulky tantrums, no scandals, and no theatrics. At a publicity event some years ago in the US, while other stars wandered off after an hour of signing, Andy stayed for hours, signing thousands of autographs for fans. And despite being the biggest name on almost any production, when necessary he's quite willing to lug cables around and do the menial work with the rest.


In recent years, Andy has moderated his screen persona: no longer is he simply the romantic or action hero, popular for his good looks and physical skills. He has given excellent performances in a variety of roles, many of them with top director Johnnie To. It was in To's film Running Out Of Time (1999) that Andy finally won the Best Actor award, for his portrayal of the jewel thief who wants to make one last revenge-driven theft before he dies.

To says that he enjoys the challenge of transforming Andy's screen persona, and he's done so with a vengeance. Needing You (2000), the office rom-com (romantic comedy), gave us a philandering Andy, prone to drinking too much and vomiting in a Shenzhen gutter. Love On A Diet (2001), a weight loss rom-com set in Japan, saw Andy swathed in a latex fat suit for most of the film, ably portraying a fat man who was modelled, he jokingly claimed, on director To. Running On Karma (2003), the moving story of an ex-monk trying to escape his talent for seeing karma, once more put Andy in latex, this time a muscle suit. And if you think spending up to 16 hours a day in latex is not that hard, then you've never been in Hong Kong.

Running On Karma won Lau another Best Actor award at the Hong Kong Film Awards. He's also won the Golden Horse of the Taiwanese Film Awards: in 1990 as Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Chinese opera performer in Kawashima Yoshiko, and in 2004 for his disturbing performance as a man on the edge in Infernal Affairs III. The original Infernal Affairs saw both Andy Lau and Tony Leung nominated for the Best Actor award (it garnered 6 awards in all, including Tony Leung Chiu Wai for Best Actor).


To's Fat Choi Spirit (2001), the mah jong rom-com, saw Andy returning to a more traditional leading man, as a talented mah jong player who's cursed by his girlfriend, played with hilarious effervescence by Gigi Leung. Fulltime Killer (2001), a slick big-budget action film also directed by To, pits Andy in tight leather against the laconic Takashi Sorimachi, in a clash for the title of number one killer in Asia.


Andy has also worked with other directors, on some of the best Hong Kong films of recent years. He starred opposite Tony Leung Chiu Wai in Andrew Lau's Infernal Affairs (2002), the intriguing drama about a triad mole in the police trying to outwit a policeman undercover in the triads. He returned in Infernal Affairs III, giving a tense portrayal of a man whose years of deceit have left him unable to recognise truth. And he has recently worked with the acclaimed mainland Chinese director Zhang Yimou, on the historical drama House Of Flying Daggers (2004).


Andy had a memorable cameo in the box-office hit Golden Chicken (2002), starring Sandra Ng as a prostitute (gai, or 'chicken', in colloquial Cantonese) telling the economic history of Hong Kong through her life story. When she's reduced to rock bottom after the Asian economic meltdown of 1997, Andy appears in one of his public service advertisements. To her astonishment, Andy climbs out of the TV and proceeds to give her a tutorial in effective moaning: one of the least likely but most amusing public service ads ever.


And as time goes on, his work improves, both in singing and acting. His latest film, the eagerly-anticipated Yesterday Once More, is another Johnnie To film that reunites Andy with Sammi Cheng. The combination of Andy and Sammi with director To produced the two box office hits Needing You and Love On A Diet, and it's a good bet that this will also be a success.


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Published December 11, 2004


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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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