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Andrew Lau Extends His “Legend” and Gets Punchy With “Fist”

Andrew Lau Extends His “Legend” and Gets Punchy With “Fist” (photo)

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This article originally ran as part of our coverage of the Toronto Film Festival 2010.

When talking to Andrew Lau, one of the first things to emerge is his tendency to drop in the ba-ba-ba sound of machine gun fire or plwww of explosions into casual conversation. Maybe it’s his way of being descriptive to an American journalist when English isn’t his first language, but then again, Mandarin might even be considered a second language to the auteur who has had an international impact on the vocabulary of action cinema. First as a protégé of the Shaw Brothers before becoming a cinematographer on films such as Ringo Lam’s “City on Fire” and “As Tears Go By” and then as the director of the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy (with Alan Mak), Lau has helped define an entire era of Hong Kong cinema.

His latest, “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen,” takes one of the most famous of Chinese legends – a masked hero bent on vengeance for the death of his master that’s so enduring it’s been the basis for Bruce Lee’s “Fist of Fury” and later Jet Li in “Fist of Legend” — and reinvented it for the modern era, filming an incredibly epic war sequence, particularly for a Chinese production, that becomes one of the most memorable first five minutes in recent memory when Donnie Yen appears on the battlefield of World War I as the mysterious leader of a group of Chinese laborers recruited to fight with the Allied Forces. Needless to say, the enemies’ guns are of little use when Yen’s Chen Zhen swoops out of the sky to clutch a soldier’s head between his thighs and proceeds to twist his neck before dismantling an entire army with just the speed and power of his fists and feet. A portion of that opening is here:

During the Toronto Film Festival, I caught up with Lau to talk about reinterpreting such a beloved figure in Chinese culture, his semi-legendary temper and pulling off the film’s bravura opening sequence.

09242010_LegendoftheFist1.jpgChen Zhen seems to be revived every decade. Why is it important to keep retelling this story?

It’s because of love. I loved Bruce [Lee] when I was a boy in 1972. Bruce was making movies when I was in primary school. When we went to go see Bruce, it was like ahhhhhh, so that is in my heart for so many years. So when Gordon [Chan, the screenwriter/producer] called me, I did have interest in making a movie about Chen Zhen, I said why not? But it must be something different, not like the 1972 Bruce version.

We must change the story and also we must change the image of Chen Zhen. [It can’t be] like the old days, just running and killing Japanese because the Japanese killed his master. The story must be changed totally. But I wanted to keep some images of Bruce and the nunchucks, And also, the sound “whaaaaaaa!!!” I like to keep it because the sound is always in my mind, and the white Chinese tunic suit. But everything else is new.

There are many Chinese films where heroes have superpowers, but few are called superheroes, as Chen Zhen is referred to once in the film. Was there an influence from American superhero films?

A hero is a hero. Superhero is too big for me. I just wanted to create a people’s hero. It’s more powerful. People’s hero is better. Also, I wanted to create Chen Zhen as a Chinese version of 007 because in my movie, Chen Zhen is intelligent, he is like a spy because he’s a special member of [the war squadron that is forced to go undercover] and because my movie’s background is 1925, Shanghai is [an international center] for so many countries like America, Italy, Germany, Russia — this is a very interesting background for my movie. I liked the nightclub in “Casablanca,” so it creates a nice background for my movie.

There have been a wave of strongly patriotic films out of China recently – “The Founding of a Republic” and “Bodyguards and Assassins,” and as you say, Chen Zhen is a people’s hero. Is that coincidence or is that important for the times?

Storywise, we put a lot of elements inside the story that are historical. It’s quite important for today. We have something in the movies, not only action ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. We tried to put a lot of elements inside because we want the audience to be happy. This is not an up movie. Up movies just tell Chen Zhen it’s ok. But for the commercial movies, we want to entertain, but to entertain, you must keep something [important]. Nowadays, the Chinese have a face. In 1925, the Chinese had a face, [but] everybody wanted to take something out of China. I used 1925, that year, but this is a little bit about [how] the old days [can] affect today.

09242010_LegendoftheFist2.jpgI read in an interview once that you had quite a temper on set because you have such intense focus. Have you tried to be more calm in recent years?

Yes, it’s true. I try [to get more calm]. When I go on the set, I’m so rushed. When I see the actors at rehearsal, when I love it, I want to keep the mood — my mood and the actors’ mood also. So I have to push the crew faster. I don’t want to lose the mood. Nowadays, some crews are quite lazy. [Some say,] “I want a day to set up.” I said, “hey, go away.” Before, you must set everything. At that moment, I lose my temper and concentration on my work. I want to capture that moment and that is why so many people say, “oh, he’s so bad tempered.” No, I just concentrate on my work and I want to capture the good moment.

The film opens with an epic World War I scene that’s of a scale you’ve never attempted before. Was it in any way more difficult?

I shoot a lot of action movies, so this time I tried to put all the [different] styles [together] – we tried our best to make a war scene. Before, Hong Kong movies are just action ka-ka-ka-ka, maybe some boom-boom-boom, but I want to challenge myself, like the opening scene, the first World War battle in Europe. When Gordon, the producer and screenwriter, wrote [the first scene set in] 1917 and goes to Europe to fight a war with the French troops, it’s hard to shoot. A Hollywood-budget movie, of course, can shoot that kind [of scale], but we’re a Hong Kong/Chinese movie. Our budget cannot afford that, a big battlefield. But this is interesting, so I thought about this for a long time and scraped some budget from the back. I said I want to shoot that part of the action, with these explosions, ba-ba-ba, running, tension, different things.

We were planning to do a lot of things. We found a set that looked like Europe and we had to buy brand new soldiers’ uniforms because [in China] they don’t have the German uniform or even the French. Also, preparing how to shoot the explosions [was different] because the [physical explosions] are not that much, so we hired a lot of special effect [technicians], about 50 people to do the explosions. After that, there was fire everywhere, – I was so impressed. Finally, we can shoot that kind of war scene. I was very happy when after the editing, we saw the whole sequence [and it worked], so next time we can shoot a war scene and safely. Nobody was injured. So I’m happy about that.

“Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” opens in L.A., New York, Portland and Hawaii on April 22nd before expanding on April 29th. A full list of playdates is here.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.