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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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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

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

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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