Filmart: Hong Kong Director Andrew Lau on Not Being "Bored" by the Films He Makes
The busy filmmaker discusses navigating everything from fantasy epics to Chinese propaganda, bringing Hong Kong filmmaking to the U.S. and why he's not worried about the next generation of directors.
Prolific Hong Kong director Andrew Lau is nothing if not versatile. In the last five years alone, the 57-year-old hitmaker, who has been making movies since 1985, has made a commercial comedy (From Vegas to Macau I-III), an indie drama (Revenge of the Green Dragons), a martial-arts monster fantasy (When Robbers Meet the Monster) and even Chinese propaganda (The Founding of an Army). Probably best known to audiences in the West for his 2003 crime epic Infernal Affairs, which became the source material for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winner The Departed, the busy helmer is also president of the Hong Kong Film Directors' Guild, where he is supervising a master class in filmmaking next month. He recently talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the diversity of his recent spate of films, passing on the Hong Kong film torch to young filmmakers and why his hair turned white nearly overnight.
Last time we talked, you were being named the Filmmaker in Focus by the Hong Kong International Film Festival. It's been five years already. Since then you've made some very eclectic choices in your filmmaking. Was such diversity a challenge you deliberately gave yourself?
I see every film as a challenge. But the main thing is I don't want to repeat myself. Some people like to make films in the same mood. But because Hong Kong filmmakers are so lucky in that we can be quite prolific, we can make a diverse range of films. I used to say Hong Kong filmmakers are crazy — I once made four films in a year. But we have an environment that pushes us to make more films. Once I get prolific, I don't want to repeat the same genre or subject matter. Otherwise I'd get bored. I can't be bored by the films I make. I'd lose the enthusiasm. So I always feel lucky to be able to make a lot of films.
Did you particularly enjoy any of the films you've made these last few years?
Oh, it was a painful experience every time. (Laughs.) That said, I had a great time making Revenge of the Green Dragons. It was quite a change for me to make a low-budget film in the U.S., and I really appreciate that Martin [Scorsese] was willing to produce the film. That's the first thing. And then there's the fact it was shot in New York City — it was great because my son was studying in New York City, and I could see him. I also had a lot of freedom scouting the locations and working on the script. The cast and crew were very helpful as well. Because we had a very low budget, we couldn't pay a lot to the actors, or provide them with deluxe trailers or accommodation, but many actors paid out of their own pockets to fly over from the other side of the country to do the casting. Many Chinese-American actors were eager to do the film. Some of the producers proposed to shoot the film in Toronto because it's so expensive to film in New York, but I vehemently refused. I used my own way to stay within the budget, and we ended up finishing under budget and were able to film it in New York. So I was really pleased. I brought the spirit of Hong Kong filmmaking to the U.S.
And then you made the From Vegas to Macau series, as producer on the first two and co-director-producer of the third installment. Did you have trouble adapting to the comedy genre?
I did. The From Vegas to Macau films were comedies, and many people thought it was easy making comedies. Let me tell you, I almost lost my mind making those films. Comedies are hard. As opposed to dramas such as Green Dragons, where I could see actors giving good performances and be confident, or see a big action scene and be excited, I wasn't sure whether the audience would laugh at the jokes in the From Vegas films when we were shooting. I was quite confused and didn't have a lot of confidence when we filmed the first film. I wasn't sure whether it would succeed with such a big-name cast [including Chow Yun-fat and Nicholas Tse] and a Chinese New Year release date. So I was rather stressed. I could only rely on the reaction of the people around me to gauge whether the jokes worked. The producers, my secretary, our tea lady — they all helped.
But you had also said you were under even more enormous pressure making The Founding of an Army [the Chinese government-sponsored propaganda film about the establishment of China's People's Liberation Army] that your hair turned white overnight.
Not over one night, over several nights. It's still white now. (Laughs.) I'd never tackled the subject matter of The Founding of an Army, but I was willing to take the challenge. After I decided to take on this project, I spent two to three years on learning the history. I also spent time on deciding how to approach the subject matter. Even though it's a 'main melody film' [films that reflect the ideology of the Chinese government], the fact that they asked me to do it meant I had to bring my own style and sensibility to the film. So they gave me quite a lot of freedom. They foresaw that even a main melody film could be done by a commercial director, from a commercial point of view. It was fun, and once I took on the project, I couldn't accept failure — we Hong Kong people do not accept failure. So I put in tremendous effort. I always said, The Founding of An Army took me four times my usual effort to make. I used the strength of making four films in making this one.
There were so many stakeholders on this movie — the Communist Party, the film investors, descendants of the historical figures and the audience. Which ones were the hardest to please?
None of the groups were particularly hard to please. Although some of the descendants complained about the portrayals of their forefathers, I don't really care about that. What I care about is the reactions of the senior members [of the party] and the audience and, of course, the investors. I had to show the film to many different levels in the hierarchy, but they were all happy with what was on the screen. So it was a big relief. (Laughs.)
And then you followed that up with Media Asia's When Robbers Meet the Monster, a period fantasy comedy set in the world of martial arts known as wulin. What attracted you to this project?
It was actually a project that first started three or four years ago. But I was too busy doing From Vegas II & III and Founding. I kept on putting it off, and the Monster screenwriter wasn't thrilled. I found the subject of this film really interesting and fun — I could play with a monster, CGI, jokes, use the past to satirize the present…
When you made the comic-book adaptation The Storm Riders (1998), it was one of the first CGI-heavy films in Hong Kong. Now that 20 years have passed, how is the CGI in that film different from that in Monster, which also made use of a lot of CGI?
It's still very difficult. Twenty years ago, the technology wasn't as sophisticated as it is nowadays. Today, the audience is very familiar with CGI in movies, so how do we please the audience? It gets more difficult because our standards are even higher than before. The monster has to be realistic-looking so that the audience won’t complain. The audience is very picky now that they've seen so much. We have to spend a lot of time to work on it.
The Hong Kong Film Directors' Guild, of which you are the president, is launching a Master Class in Film Directing, and you are the supervisor of the course. How is it coming along?
The course will begin on April 2 and last for six months. We've enrolled 30 students. The response to the admission has been very enthusiastic. The teachers are all renowned Hong Kong directors [including Lau, Felix Chong, Wilson Yip, Ann Hui, Peter Chan and Derek Yee]. After I became the president of the Film Directors' Guild, I thought about how important it is to pass on the Hong Kong film legacy. Although there are many film courses in Hong Kong, I don't think they teach what is really happening in the film industry right now, because they don't have that many working directors as teachers. I think it's really crucial to teach the new generation what it is like in the present film industry. Before our students graduate, we'll choose 10 of the more outstanding ones, and give HK$100,000 ($12,850) to each of them to make a short film. We'll then recommend the best one to apply for the [Hong Kong government-sponsored] First Film Initiative and the Directors' Guild will produce the film. But of course, the very best students will very quickly be hired by the teachers-directors. We see it as one of the better places for us to find new recruits — we can see their talents and their learning attitude. I believe many of the students will enter the film industry right after the course.
What is your general assessment of the next generation of Hong Kong directors?
I don't worry about lacking new filmmakers — there were more than 30 new directors making their first films in 2016, and over 20 last year. I've met with many new directors, and I find them passionate. I completely disagree with people who believe the Hong Kong film industry is on its last legs. The industry is only undergoing a transformation. We changed from being self-sustainable to a downturn in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and now we have co-productions. The market has become larger. Hong Kong directors are still quite in demand in China. So it falls on our generation of established directors to tell the younger generation about our experience and how to navigate the existing market. The new generation is very smart — they grew up watching movies.
What is the film investment environment in Hong Kong like these days?
It depends on how you look at it. Some might say Hong Kong film investment has dried up; all the money is from China. It's only half of the story. The filmmaking scene in China is different; there are lessons to be learned about how to make films there and how to adapt. We have to try and let go of our baggage. I had to let go of some of my baggage even when I went to make films in the U.S. I want to pass on this spirit to the new generation.