Kaiju Shakedown: Jeff Lau
This weekend, Stephen Chow’s blockbuster comedy, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, hits American screens. Last summer, Wong Kar Wai’s moody martial-arts movie, The Grandmaster, got a U.S. release. These two movies have something in common, and its name is Jeff Lau—Hong Kong’s inspirational, celebrational, Lau-sensational pop god. He’s the man who made Stephen Chow grow up, and the guy who made Wong Kar Wai cool.
Hong Kong is home to a fistful of directors who are their own genres: Wong Kar Wai, Johnnie To, Tsui Hark, and John Woo. Add to that list Jeff Lau, a comedy craftsman whose fingerprints are all over the industry as a writer, producer, and director, an excavator of talent, and a man who chases his whiskey shots of cynicism with gulps from the wine cooler of sentimentality. With a style that blends broad slapstick, deft satire, subversive politics, over-the-top visuals, sharp wordplay, vulgar dialogue, forays into time travel and reincarnation, musical numbers, animated interludes, over-the-top characterizations, airborne action, a gleeful evisceration of Chinese classical literature, and some of the most intricate plotting ever put on film, Lau’s movies stand alone.
East Meets West 2011
Take East Meets West 2011. Karen Mok, playing a goth chick who believes love is stupid, rushes to the aid of her estranged dad, Kenny Bee, a one-time rock ’n’ roll superstar reduced to playing a zombie in a haunted house (played by the actual Kenny Bee, a one-time rock ’n’ roll superstar, now retired). His hot young wife (his daughter’s former schoolmate) is on the run from a super-rich Mainland businessman because she stole the money he gave her to arrange a reunion concert of The Wynners, Kenny Bee’s old band (both in the film and in real life). After escaping from loan sharks via flying and talking to crows, Karen and Kenny hit Guangzhou, and wind up (in no particular order) arranging the concert, falling in love, receiving aggressive haircuts, discovering that they are the reincarnated Seven Heavenly Dragons locked in a millennia-long war with the evil Yaksha, develop superpowers, find the five other Heavenly Dragons, engage in battle with Yaksha, and learn that love is eternal. The movie sends up Batman, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, the cult of celebrity, and organized religion; plays “Happy Together” by The Turtles more times than is strictly healthy; and engages in stop-on-a-dime shifts from hilarity to heartbreak that actually work.
If you want to know how Stephen Chow went from being a manic television host to a bankable movie star, and then, five years (and 35 movies) later, went from goofy cinematic clown to playing semi-tragic, three dimensional characters in lush, beautifully produced, well-written and highly ambitious movies about love, failure, and success, then you need to look at the influence of Jeff Lau. If you want to know how Wong Kar Wai went from making miniature pop masterpieces jacked up on rock music and shimmering with urban anomie, to making slow-moving, carefully composed, somewhat glacial studies of romantic loss that all seem to be, to some extent, remakes of his early Days of Being Wild, then you need to look at the influence of Jeff Lau. Invisible to most outsiders, Lau is a man who has influenced the tastes of millions without most people knowing his name. He is Hong Kong’s Harold Ramis.
In the early Eighties when he was barely 27 years old, Lau helped film producer Century buy up the Sun Sing Chinatown theater chain in North America, then worked with Century as they made a string of landmark Hong Kong New Wave movies like The Imp (81), Coolie Killer (82), Man on the Brink (81), and Nomad (82), each one an exercise in avant genre filmmaking and ferocious violence. It was Lau who supported television director Patrick Tam’s hiring as director of Nomad, and it was Lau who had egg on his face when the production went off the rails and another director was brought in to shoot a new ending. (These days, Tam is famous as the editor of Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time, as well as Johnnie To’s Election).
Lau met Wong Kar Wai as an extra on a Century film, and later convinced Alan Tang to hire the unknown kid as a scriptwriter. Together, Lau, Tang, and Wong formed In Gear productions, which produced Lau’s directorial debut, Haunted Cop Shop (87; co-written by Wong), Haunted Cop Shop II (88), the Alan Tang/Chow Yun-fat heroic bloodshed movie Flaming Brothers (87; written by Wong Kar Wai), and Wong Kar Wai’s debut film, As Tears Go By. In 1989, Lau directed the grim, downbeat anti-comedy, Thunder Cops II, starring comedians Sandra Ng and Stephen Chow, both unknowns at the time. Realizing that Chow was gruesomely miscast, Lau brought him on board to make All for the Winner.
God of Gamblers
Chow Yun-fat had starred in God of Gamblers the previous year, and it made a boatload of money, but Chow refused to shoot a sequel. Into the gap stepped indie producer Ng See-yuen (who had discovered Jackie Chan, Yuen Woo-ping, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, for better or worse). Ng had a treatment for an unofficial sequel ready to go. Lau came on board with action director Corey Yuen, and he brought Stephen Chow with him. With All for the Winner, they together founded the genre of mo lei tau (nonsense) comedy. The movie follows a Mainland hick (Chow) with supernatural abilities who comes to Hong Kong where his con artist uncle (Ng Man-tat, who would go on to make around 25 movies with Chow) ropes him into using his superpowers to cheat at gambling. All for the Winner launched a million imitators, grossed more money than God of Gamblers, and turned Stephen Chow and Ng Man-tat into Hong Kong (and then China’s) top-grossing comedy kings.
At the banquet wrapping up production, Lau told Chow that he would never work with him again (who knows why?), reducing the actor to tears. Over the next four years, Chow consulted with Lau and asked for advice on scripts, but Lau stuck to his guns in terms of further collaboration. Finally in 1994, Lau’s New Year’s movie (Treasure Hunt with Chow Yun-fat) beat Chow’s New Year movie (Love on Delivery, which Chow had asked him to direct) at the box office, and Chow called him. He told Lau that he was forming his own production company, and because he would no longer be working for any of Lau’s business rivals, there was no reason not to help him. Lau agreed, then asked Chow, “How many times are you going to keep making All for the Winner?” And he unveiled his masterpiece, A Chinese Odyssey.
All for the Winner
Which brings us back to Wong Kar-wai and Jeff Lau. Flashback to 1990. When Lau left In Gear to make his Stephen Chow hit, his partner at In Gear, Wong Kar Wai, shot Days of Being Wild, a moody meditation on time and loss that was wildly reviled. Featuring six major Hong Kong stars, everyone thought it was a can’t-lose proposition, until the movie came out and no one could understand it. So Wong and Lau formed another production company, Jet Tone (named by Lau’s wife). Their first plan was to go to China, round up every major Hong Kong actor, and shoot a two-part adaptation of a famous martial arts novel, The Eagle Shooting Heroes, with Wong directing part one and Lau directing part two. Things did not go as planned.
By this time, Lau had parlayed his success with All for the Winner into a string of hits—the anime-inspired Saviour of the Soul (91), the gambling hit The Top Bet (91), and his own personal favorite, the bizarre quasi-musical homage to Cantonese movies of the Sixties, 92 Legendary La Rose Noire (92), a film that manages to be stranger than its convoluted title (see the trailer if you don’t believe me). Currently, Lau was producing Wong Kar Wai’s half of their movie, Ashes of Time, which was spiraling out of control. As he says, “We wanted to do great things. That’s why we were stupid.”
Ashes shot for years and ate up an unheard-of HK$40 million. Lau canceled his half of the film and shot Love and the City to put another HK$4 million into Ashes to keep the production alive. Finally, it became clear that Wong was never going to finish shooting his film, sending the investors into conniptions. At the last minute, Lau stepped in and, as he put it, “saved Wong’s ass” by fulfilling Wong’s contract and shooting a comedy version of Ashes of Time using the same actors and based on the same material. Released on Chinese New Year’s, Eagle Shooting Heroes (93) is Ashes of Time in drag and on crack, and it enabled Wong to avoid a lawsuit.
Lau and Wong have traded ideas back and forth, with characters from one director’s film appearing in another. Lau’s Love in the City may have been pilloried because it looked like a Leon Lai pager commercial, but it also influenced and was influenced by Wong’s Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. And for those who felt that Wong’s Days of Being Wild is too confusing, the original story is preserved in the first half of Lau’s Days of Tomorrow (93). These days, the two men are friends but don’t work together. If you want to know the difference between young, pop-tastic Wong Kar Wai, and melancholy, moody Wong Kar Wai, subtract Jeff Lau. As Hong Kong critic Thomas Shin writes: “Wong’s strength comes from suppression, while Lau’s strength comes from a surfeit of emotion.”
Which brings us back to Stephen Chow and Chinese Odyssey. More than Eagle Shooting Heroes, this film was Lau’s response to Wong’s Ashes of Time, shooting on the same locations and with many of the same characters (as well as the same music). Divided into two 90-minute films by the distributor (Lau’s preferred version is a one-part, two-hour-and-15-minute cut), it’s a twisted version of the classic Journey to the West, that opens with the Goddess of Mercy sentencing Tripitaka’s disciples, Pigsy and the Monkey King, to be reincarnated as mortals for 500 years as punishment for the Monkey King’s plan to serve Tripitaka’s flesh, which confers immortality, at his wedding reception. Cut to: 500 years later. The Monkey King (played, of course, by Stephen Chow) is now the cross-eyed leader of a gang of terrible bandits. He’s forgotten his previous incarnations, and winds up the victim of two martial arts sisters, 30th Madame and Pak Jing-jing, who are staking him out while waiting for Tripitaka to show up again for a reunion so they can eat him.
Chow falls in love with one of the sisters, who was jilted by him in his previous Monkey King incarnation, and while hopping back in time (using the titular Pandora’s Box) to keep her from killing herself in despair, he winds up sending himself back 500 years, where he confronts his Monkey King incarnation and tries to keep everything from getting screwed up in the first place. This description leaves out King Bull and his army of giant fleas, a sexy spider woman, zombification, appearances by Brigitte Lin’s schizophrenic character from Ashes of Time (named Lin Qingxia, Lin’s actual name in Mandarin Chinese), and multiple scenes of Chow getting his penis set on fire, beaten with logs, or stomped on by a group of men. Also, there is another monk who sometimes turns into a bunch of grapes that are sometimes inside people’s pants.
Journey to the West
Needless to say, Chinese Odyssey is also a tremendously moving, melancholy romance about the Monkey King’s struggle to be a good person. It was a New Year’s hit that sent Chow’s career in a new, more grown-up and dignified direction where he began to actually play characters rather than performing shtick, and resulted in hits like God of Cookery (96), King of Comedy (99), Shaolin Soccer (01), Kung Fu Hustle (04; produced by Lau), and ultimately his own version of Journey to the West (in theaters this week!). Since then, Chinese Odyssey has become a cult hit which has been more embraced by Mainland audiences than Hong Kong audiences, and you can still hear people quoting lines from it today.
Chinese Odyssey 1 and 2
This is Lau’s masterpiece, and the first movie where people saw that Stephen Chow was capable of so much more than just going for the joke. It’s confusing, ridiculous, surreal, and scattershot, but it’s also something of a classic of Chinese cinema and one of the great cinematic fantasy films.
If you want to know why it works, try this scene between the revered Buddhist monk, Tripitaka, and Stephen Chow:
Chinese Odyssey 2002
This was a project that Wong Kar Wai initially conceived and (somewhat) jokingly proposed to Lau that he direct under Lau’s name. Lau’s response was “Say no more,” and he rewrote the script and directed it. Wong shot some scenes, Lau shot others, and the stars are longtime Wong Kar Wai stalwarts Tony Leung and Faye Wong. It’s a potent example of these two men’s ability to feed off each other.
One of Lau’s patented karaoke musical breaks featuring moonwalking and amorous swans:
East Meets West 2011
There’s not much more to say about this deliriously cracked romance that the trailer doesn’t make abundantly clear.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
… Ringo Lam is back! I've been hearing rumors about this for a while, and now it looks to be true. After a roughly 15-year absence, Ringo Lam is back to making feature films in Hong Kong.
… The Hong Kong International Film Festival has announced their lineup and this year’s special focus is on films from the Independent Commission Against Corruption (Hong Kong’s version of the Internal Affairs Department). The ICAC has always sponsored filmmaking to educate the public and they’ve worked with directors from Ann Hui (whose ICAC films were banned and sent hundreds of cops marching into the streets in protest), to Herman Yau (Untold Story), and Dante Lam (Beast Stalker).
… Another flick in the HKIFF is Boundless, a juicy-sounding behind-the-scenes documentary about Johnnie To, probably one of the greatest directors working today. Here’s The Hollywood Reporter’s take on it.
… Good news for fans of the inimitable Save the Green Planet (trailer; reviewed by Chuck Stephens in our Mar/Apr 2005 issue): Korean director Jang Joon-Hwan has emerged from an 11-year exile to direct a new movie, Hwayi: Monster Boy. Its reviews are as mixed as those for Save the Green Planet were, but maybe that’s a good sign?
… The extremely popular Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival announced its winners recently. Twitch has the full roundup, but here they are… Grand Prix: The Pinkie. Special Jury Prize: Gun Woman. Hokkaido Governor's Prize: School Girls’ Gestation. Cinegar Award: The Pinkie. Sky Perfect Movie Channel Award: Old Men Never Die. Short Film Competition: Inertial Love & Cycloid. Artistic Contribution Award: Anal Juice [in full here]. Special Jury Prize: Anemia. Grand Prix: Junk Head.
… And finally, we'll leave the last word to Jeff Lau, interviewed here in Time Out Hong Kong!