He is best known in Chinese and Western cinema for sleekly shot gangster thrillers like the "Young and Dangerous" series and "Infernal Affairs" trilogy. But Hong Kong director Andrew Lau says he has left his comfort zone with a brooding romance about a Hong Kong woman and an ailing mainland Chinese police officer.
"A Beautiful Life," which will be released in China next month, represents a clear break from his fast-paced, visually dynamic work of the past, Lau told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Lau has largely stuck to the genre since the huge success of "Infernal Affairs." The first installment was remade by Martin Scorsese as the 2006 thriller "The Departed," which earned the American filmmaker his first best director Oscar.
Hong Kong filmmaker Lau has recently filmed the street car thriller "Initial D," the Korean-language romantic thriller "Daisy" and "The Flock," his debut Hollywood crime story starring Richard Gere and Claire Danes. Last year, he released the kung fu picture "Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen," a sequel of sorts to the 1972 Bruce Lee classic "Fist of Fury," starring Donnie Yen.
"A Beautiful Life" is a different animal, Lau said.
"My visuals are typically very powerful. The rhythm is fast. The cuts are fast. This time I took a completely different approach. There are many lengthy shots," he said, pointing in particular to a five-minute-plus scene featuring lead actors Shu Qi and Liu Ye.
Shu's character, a Hong Kong real-estate agent who suffers romantic and career setbacks in Beijing, delivers a drunken monologue to Liu, who plays a police officer whose mental state is slowly deteriorated by a form of dementia.
"You are basically watching the actors give their all. I wanted them to work at it until they found the right mood. I did not split it into different shots ... This is a conscious change on my part," Lau said.
It's an approach that was much appreciated by Liu, one of China's rising stars. Liu, who starred opposite Meryl Streep in Chen Shizheng's 2007 drama "Dark Matter," said he enjoyed how Lau allowed the actors to maintain their mood with extended takes.
"This kind of story is built on accumulation. It is built on the slow evolution of the couple's relationship. From one to 100 _ you can't miss a step. So it's especially demanding on the continuity of an actor's emotions," Liu told the AP. "Director Lau just let us keep going and keep going. He might feel that he has slowed down, but I thought the rhythm was just right."
Lau also took the unusual step of letting Shu make an early edit of the movie so he could structure the story from a woman's perspective. The veteran Taiwanese actress is now eyeing a directorial debut, so Lau thought the editing task was a good learning experience for her and was pleased with her effort.
"She is not just an actress any more. She knows how to analyze camera angles, the score. She knows how to analyze cinema," Lau said.
And instead of choosing a catchy pop tune as the theme song, Lau opted for Taiwanese folk singer Bobby Chen's haunting 1994 release "I Won't Let You Be Alone."
The plot for "A Beautiful Life" also reflects the changing relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China. While many locals looked down on the less-developed mainland when this former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the rapid growth of the mainland economy has relegated this southern financial hub to a supporting role. From big-spending mainland tourists to Chinese companies seeking to raise capital, China is now a crucial economic lifeline for Hong Kong.
The film industry is no different, with Hong Kong directors partnering with mainland studios and turning to subject matter more appealing to mainland audiences. "A Beautiful Life" is the second recent romance by a Hong Kong director to focus on a Hong Kong-mainland relationship. Johnnie To's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" describes how a Hong Kong trader and a Chinese-Canadian architect vie for the love of a mainland financial analyst.
The original plot for "A Beautiful Life" conceived in 2000 featured a Hong Kong police officer and a mainland woman, but Lau reversed the roles to better fit contemporary trends.
"I have drifted to the north too. I have set up an office up in the mainland," Lau said. "This is the reality. You need to make certain decisions to expand your market."