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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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