May 2, 2012

Five Films: Lau Ching Wan

I've done a couple of Five Films profiles in the past, and the Mark Hamill entry in particular remains the most popular thing on this blog. Tonight I want to discuss five films starring one of my all-time favourite male actors, and I strongly suspect the majority of you won't have heard of him. He's critically acclaimed, extremely popular in his home town, and a multiple award-winner. His name is Lau Ching Wan, and he's an outstanding actor from Hong Kong.

Running Out of Time (1999)
I'm pretty sure that Running Out of Time is the first film in which I noticed Lau. He started off as a television actor before shifting to motion pictures, where he's been one of the key actors for director Johnnie To. I make no apologies for the fact that three of my five picks are Johnnie To films - no director working in the world today is as consistently good at what they do as To, and Lau is one of the best actors he uses. Here Lau plays Inspector To, a police detective caught in a cat and mouse game with a terminally ill master criminal (Andy Lau). Lau returned the role in a sequel.

Lost in Time (2003)
Lost in Time is an unashamed melodrama, in which a widowed now-single mother (Cecilia Cheung) tries to make ends meet by taking up her dead husband's position as a minibus driver. Lau plays another bus driver who awkwardly helps her out and - of course - a romance develops. This film is what it is: it's not going to set the world on fire, and it's not going to surprise you. Lau manages to give a wonderfully rounded and three-dimensional performance and gets to play the romantic lead despite usually being cast in police thrillers and the like.

Mad Detective (2007)
Lau's finest performance is found here, another Johnnie To film, in which he plays Bun, a former police detective suffering from either a supernatural insight into other human beings or a severe mental illness. The film never lets its audience know which one it is, which is one of its strengths. It's a highly idiosyncratic film, unlike anything else you're likely to see - and for me that makes it a must-see.

Overheard (2009)
Lau's back playing a police detective in this 2009 thriller from the team that wrote Infernal Affairs (which was remade in Hollywood as The Departed). A police surveillance assignment segues into an opportunistic attempt at insider trading, which in turn leads to a growing list of fumbles and cockups as Lau and his two co-stars (Louis Koo and Daniel Wu) attempt to set things right. A sequel followed two years later, using a format I think more film studios should use: the writer/directors were back, the lead cast were back, but they all played different roles in an entirely new story based on the same themes and style.

Life Without Principle (2011)
Lau's most recent performance is back with Johnnie To, playing a triad henchman short on smarts but high in dogged persistence and loyalty. The film cleverly weaves multiple plot strands together with an ensemble cast, each affecting the other and all based around Hong Kong's cultural obsession with wealth and money and set against a backdrop of the Global Financial Crisis. If you watch this after the previous four films I've listed, I'm pretty

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