Martin Scorsese had just won a long-overdue best director Oscar for a remake based on his 2002 crime thriller "Infernal Affairs" and thanked Lau in his acceptance speech. The Hong Kong filmmaker was getting ready to release his Hollywood debut starring Richard Gere and Claire Danes.
But that lone American production, "The Flock," ended up getting a limited release in the U.S. His Chinese-language work since "Infernal Affairs" — which spawned two follow-ups — hasn't received similar acclaim. Some have described the period as a letdown for the 50-year-old director who was a special effects pioneer and crafted handheld cinematography for art-house icon Wong Kar-wai.
"Right now he seems to be having a hard time aligning his sensibilities with the market," said Grady Hendrix, one of the organizers of the New York Asian Film Festival.
Lau, however, has returned to the limelight in recent weeks with a new kung fu blockbuster starring Donnie Yen. "Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen" screened at both the Toronto and Venice film festival ahead of its Sept. 23 premiere in Asia. In Venice, the 106-minute action thriller was one of the event's two opening movies. Just hours after returning from Toronto, the still bleary-eyed director called his upcoming release a personal breakthrough.
"The audiences really enjoyed the visuals of the movie," Lau told The Associated Press. "They feel it's very different from what they've seen before. It's like watching live combat. It looks very real."
The subject matter is a curious choice. The character of Chen Zhen was made famous by Bruce Lee in his 1972 classic "The Chinese Connection" and has already seen other film and TV reincarnations since then.
But Lau said his 120 million Chinese yuan ($18 million) production breathes new life into the role while paying homage to Lee, whom he considers an idol. He and screenwriter Gordon Chan crafted a new story that picks up at the ending of "The Chinese Connection," in which Chen avenges the murder of his martial arts teachers by the Japanese. In "Legend of the Fist," Chen goes into hiding in France, where he outsmarts German soldiers with bullet-dodging gymnastics and ruthless punches on the battlefields of World War I. When he returns to Shanghai, he assumes a fake identity as a night club partner but continues his crusade against Japanese imperialism in secret.
Lau says Yen, who played Chen in a 1995 TV series, came up with new moves and that he instructed the action star to fight with more rhythm. Lee's spirit is still felt, with Yen donning Lee's classic white tight-collared Mao suit, flashing a nunchaku and emitting high-pitched growls. He also fights in a mask, evoking Lee's Kato characters in the short-lived 1966 American TV series "The Green Hornet."
The reviews have been mixed. Hollywood trade publication Variety called Lau's lighting and color schemes "dazzling" but criticized its jerky pace and lack of elegant action sequences.
Lau said he isn't nostalgic about the success of "Infernal Affairs," which he attributed to timing and luck. The hit came at a time when the Hong Kong industry was suffering, he noted. The Scorsese remake, "The Departed," helped generate headlines and greater prestige.
"I tell people to stop talking about it. That's in the past. That was eight years ago. We need to look to the future. You can't come up with new things unless you constantly forget the past. There's no reason to keep wearing the same pair of pants," Lau said.
But he disputed the characterization that he went into a slump after the "Infernal Affairs" trilogy. His body of work since then is diverse. Besides "The Flock," there's a street car racing story inspired by a Japanese comic book series ("Initial D"), a Korean-language action film set in the Netherlands ("Daisy"), another Hong Kong-set thriller ("Confession of Pain") and a Macau-set romantic comedy ("Look for a Star"). The eclectic mix gives the impression that Lau is experimenting while he searches for a project that truly excites him, Hendrix, the film festival organizer, said.
"I was able to make many different kinds of movies," Lau said. "They enriched me on many different levels."
The cinematographer-turned-director said he was especially proud of "Initial D" because it was much more difficult and dangerous shoot than "Infernal Affairs" and a hit in Hong Kong, mainland China and Japan. He thinks he handled romance better in "Confession of Pain."
"I don't want to repeat myself. I don't want to shoot 10 installments of 'Infernal Affairs,'" he said.
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