One of Hong Kong’s most celebrated actresses, with a career spanning four decades, Carina Lau tells us about the ever-changing landscape of Asian cinema and the power to move with movies.
Words STEPHANIE IP
Creative Direction and Styling ALVIN GOH
Photography REUBEN FOONG
Make-up ALVIN GOH
Hair styling KEN HUI at Artify Lab
Manicure PINKY HO
Styling Assistants ANNA LAM and NOELLE TIN
Photography Assistants TYLER YEUNG and DEREK LI
Production Coordinator MICHAEL CHEUNG
Something About Carina
There was once a girl in Suzhou who really loved movies. She loved them so wholeheartedly that films permeated her daydreams. They guided her when she was lost, showed her beauty when she was sad, and brought her inspiration wherever she went. Perhaps it was fated, then, that she’d become an actress – and a damn good one at that. Perhaps, too, if this little girl loved movies so much, becoming an actress must have been a childhood dream. I pose this question over the phone to cinema veteran Carina Lau, who – surprisingly – denies it.
“Born in China, I never would have thought that in my lifetime I would become an actress, and for almost 40 years at that,” she exclaims. “When I was young, I really thought that one day I would become a factory worker.”
Lau was 15 years old when her family immigrated to Hong Kong in search of a better life. They weren’t rich by any means, and Lau, who claims she didn’t do well in school, followed her mother to become a worker in a garment factory. But later on, spurred by a desire to try something different, Lau enrolled into TVB’s star training programme – and to her shock, and her father’s chagrin, she was accepted.
The year was 1983 and Hong Kong cinema was in its heyday, golden years that saw Cantonese films triumph in the East Asian region and find cult followings in the West. Until the mid-’90s, Hong Kong was known as the Hollywood of the East, spawning entirely new genres including kung fu, wuxia and heroic bloodshed. And with it, its directors and starlets were pushed to international stardom – Bruce Lee’s action-packed flicks, as well as Wong Kar-wai’s romance-heavy tales remain classics to this day, while names such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-fat are living icons of Hong Kong cinema’s glory days.
Lau remembers this period well. After all, 1983 was the year in which she made her onscreen debut. “From the moment I joined the industry, I’ve seen Hong Kong make its name in different genres in film. We have our heist movies, our romance movies, kung fu movies, comedies … we have really great horror films too,” she says. Today, 40 years on, Lau’s list of accolades runs long. She became a household name following her portrayal of a wealthy heiress in 1989’s Looking Back in Anger, which is still one of Hong Kong’s most-watched local TV series. From then on, Lau moved into film and was nominated at the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress for her role in Her Beautiful Life Lies (1989). Her critically acclaimed performance in Days of Being Wild cemented her as one of Hong Kong’s top actresses, as well as marking the beginning of many more collaborations with director Wong Kar-wai.
And while the golden era of cinema has come and gone, it’s interesting to note that Lau as an actress remains incredibly active. Her latest movie, Warriors of Future with Louis Koo, sees her once again in a new kind of role, as a female commander in a futuristic sci-fi world. Backed by Koo’s production company, the sci-fi action movie is visual-effects artist Ng Yuen-fai’s directorial debut and is already generating plenty of buzz for its high-octane CGI production.
“I met Louis Koo when he asked me to visit him on set while they were shooting,” Lau recalls. “When I reached the set in Shenzhen, I felt as if I’d landed in a military zone. It was on such a grand scale. They were shooting a futuristic sci-fi movie and at that time I wasn’t clear on the plot but I found it such a new and exciting experience.”
Later, when Koo asked her to take part in the movie, Lau needed little persuasion. “There are usually very few women characters in a sci-fi action movie like this,” says Lau, “but Louis said this was exactly why they wanted to cast a female captain and they wanted me for the role. I took it and said I’d do my best. We started shooting the movie immediately and now, five years later, the audience gets to enjoy it.”
Much of her performance was filmed on a green screen, says Lau, who insisted on watching the movie in the cinema, even though Koo had offered to show her cuts of the film beforehand. “It was a movie meant to be watched on the big screen,” she says, “and what I saw really amazed me. There had been a number of movies that attempted CGI before, but they were neither here nor there – it’s all a bit awkward. But this movie was done in such a professional way – they really cared about the movie and did a lot of prep work. It was amazing. I’m also really honoured to have had a part [because] this new sci-fi genre really symbolises a new chapter of creativity for Hong Kong.”
Lau hopes Hong Kong continues to make great films. Even as China’s film industry gets bigger and more and more locals turn to Netflix and Disney+ for Western films, she says, “We’ve always looked for new stories to tell and to give our audiences what they want to see.
“We don’t just watch local movies anymore these days. We’ve globalised and we see so many of our actors today going to Hollywood – even Tony Leung has gone and made a movie with Marvel and he might be working with Disney+ on something new. I think nowadays we’re in an era of resource sharing – we see more Western people remaking movies with our themes, as well as more Asian actors making movies abroad. Movies aren’t localised anymore, and I think having all these resources and making movies together can actually bring the audience more exciting material to watch.”
Of husband Tony Leung’s Hollywood debut – in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, no less – Lau has nothing but pride. “I’m very proud of Tony,” she says. “I really wanted him to accept the job because I’m a huge Marvel fan. He made the movie for Chinese people, showcasing a Chinese superhero. It was such a good opportunity that it would have been a mistake not to take part in it. You can see different cultures being represented in all these superhero movies these days. Shang Chi was about a Chinese hero, and though Tony played the villain – I mean, any superhero story needs a good guy and a bad guy – it was a role that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Ever a supportive wife, Lau accompanied Leung to Australia to be on set with him at the beginning. “I wanted him to feel comfortable on set,” she says. But secretly, she was even more excited about the role than Leung was. “He wasn’t a Marvel fan so he didn’t know the MCU,” she says, laughing. “It was also a new environment that he wasn’t familiar with. But you have to step out of your comfort zone and try new things.”
Hollywood certainly took its time to give Asian actors the recognition they deserved, but Lau believes Asian movies are stronger than ever. “Look at South Korea. And in China, we have quite a few well-known film directors as well,” Lau points out. “It’s true that in the beginning, Asia representation in Hollywood might have been limited and we’re given very textbook roles, but now I do think with Tony’s new movie, we’re coming out to say, Asian actors know how to act too. I think it’s a good thing for the industry. In Korea, the actor in Squid Game also won a Golden Globe. Youn Yuh-jung won an Oscar. Our culture is being recognised by people in the West.”
Will we one day see her in an international movie role? Lau says, “I’m open to making movies outside of Hong Kong as long as I’m not too old to still act. The good thing in Hollywood is that you’re not limited by your age. There are so many roles open to older women too. I tell myself, why not? There are so many movies and TV series on Netflix and Disney+ that touch on Asian stories. If there’s a role for me, I would do it.”
In Asia, the industry is still sensitive to age and Lau laments that ageing makes it more difficult to find leading roles. “But in other countries, this isn’t a problem. I’ve seen movies about love stories between elderly couples. You can find moving stories in people of any age.”
The award-winning actress has played it all. If it seemed as if there were no roles Lau wouldn’t do, it was true. Her repertoire spans the martial-arts epic Saviour of the Soul (1991), biopic Center Stage (1991), cross-dressing comedy He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (1994), offbeat romance Gigolo and Whore (1994), wuxia classic Ashes of Time (1994) and spy movie Forbidden City Cop (1997). She’s equally capable of playing a bisexual silk-factory owner in Intimates (1997) as she is a prostitute in Flowers of Shanghai (1998), while in Wong Kar-wai’s romantic drama 2046 (2004) she was flawless as an android. Lau reprised her role as empress Wu Zetian in Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee movies, which earned her a Golden Rooster Award for Best Actress and a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress.
Lau simply tells me that she likes a good challenge. “I love trying new things and I’m not afraid to do it,” she says. “I think what really helped me achieve things throughout my career was to have a studious attitude. I approach everything in life in the same manner – I’m not afraid of hard work and I wasn’t afraid of failure. As long as I had work coming, I felt fortunate. Was I happy or not? Everyone experiences sadness in their life but you can do everything with gratefulness in your heart. There are a lot of opportunities to do exciting things, and to learn and improve yourself.”
But courage isn’t something she was born with. Lau believes that courage comes with time and training. “I wasn’t born with a heart of steel,” she says, laughing, “but when you meet obstacles, you have to find a way forward and accept the challenges.
“Every single successful person I’ve ever met has walked a path of failure. You find success because you want to challenge yourself. The greater the challenge, the greater the test. If you tell yourself you don’t want to accept these new challenges, then you’ll stay where you are and never move forward. You have to take risks.”
Lau isn’t just bold with her movie choices; she’s been bold with her other endeavours in fashion and hospitality as well. And though her restaurant businesses and her fashion label, Anirac, are no longer active, she was glad to have had the experiences. “These were all things that, as a young girl, I wished to do,” she explains. “When I had the means to do it, I wanted to complete my childhood dreams. But halfway through running these separate businesses, I realised I wasn’t doing these things well enough and I felt a bit powerless. I couldn’t take care of so many things. In the end, I just wanted to focus on being the best actress I could be, and that was enough for me. But the important thing was that I tried. Even if my businesses didn’t work out, it was enough for me that I tried.”
The movie world is still her number-one passion. “I’ve loved watching movies since I was young and even to this day I’ll watch anything. My ambitions, my dreams and my fantasies for the future have all stemmed from watching movies,” she says. “For me, movies opened the door to a world of new discoveries, it opened my eyes to things I couldn’t have imagined for myself. My taste in the arts and culture, my fashion sense, a lot of these have been inspired by the movies I watch. I can easily be moved by lines said in a movie, and see how they can be applicable to my own life. Movies have always been extremely important to me.”
So important, that her wedding to Tony Leung in 2008, which was held in Bhutan, could have been inspired by something she saw. She tells me she could have chosen to have her wedding in Europe – “I could have asked for any manor or palace,” but Bhutan appeared in her mind. “I’d pictured a wedding in a sea of red, with three lamas standing behind me,” she says, laughing. “I had such a beautiful image in my head. I planned the entire wedding myself, from the vision to the guest list and Wong Kar-wai helped me with the production.”
And Leung? “Tony was very cooperative. He’s a terrific co-star,” she says, again bursting into laughter. The chances of us ever seeing the pair act together in a film however, is remote, as Lau explains, “We know each other too well now and we prefer to keep our professional lives separate.”
Films are what the couple talk about the most. “Half of the time, he and I are discussing films. What films have we seen separately and together? What would he do if he acted in this film? What would I do if I directed this film? Who would we cast? It’s such a wonderful game for us.”
Lau is 56 this year, but she doesn’t look it – nor, for that matter, does she feel it. “Youth is how you feel,” she quips. “It’s not measured by your age.” She readily makes her own adventures – in her forties, she learned to snowboard, she skydived, she scuba-dived. Is this why Lau agreed literally to bare it all for our photoshoot this month? She says with glee, “This photoshoot was really special, it wasn’t like anything I’ve ever done before. I love working with young people these days and I like how they think, it’s so different from my generation. There’s so much new territory to discover with the new generation.”