It is impossible to gauge who is the most successful of the “Four Heavenly Kings” of Canto-pop, a divine grouping that includes Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok, Jackie Cheung and Leon Lai. Record sales and box office takings alone do not tell the whole story. But Lau is surely the most critically acclaimed of the quartet.
By 2000, Lau had already accrued nearly 300 awards for his music – which earned him a Guinness World Record for “Most Awards Won by a Canto-pop Male Artist” – and when it comes to cinema, his achievements are equally impressive. Lau is not only tremendously popular among casual cinema-goers – he was Hong Kong’s top box office draw from 1985-2005 – he is also highly rated by critics, winning the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor three times and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Award for Best Leading Actor twice.
A man with a prodigious work ethic, Lau has starred in more than 150 movies. We look back at his illustrious career and select 10 of his very best films.
As Tears Go By
A hugely significant film, it can be argued that As Tears Go By helped to launch the cinematic careers of Andy Lau (at least in terms of serious dramatic roles), debut director Wong Kar-wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Although it is Jacky Cheung, as a young triad who never seems to get anything right, who gets the most melodramatic moments, Lau shines in his role as the older and more responsible triad brother having to save his hot-tempered friend from himself.
God of Gamblers
Chow Yun-fat may have been the iconic and eponymous God of Gamblers, but Andy Lau played his part in this box office behemoth that was, reportedly, at one stage the highest grossing film in Hong Kong box office history. His character is not as cool as Chow’s, nor is he as good a gambler, but Lau’s talent manages to make us feel invested in this pretty average joe, ensuring this movie is not completely about Chow.
A Moment of Romance
Although there’s little that’s original in this 1990 flick about a romance between a well-mannered rich girl (Jacklyn Wu) and a bad boy gangster (Lau), the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Lau is effortlessly cool, with sizzling chemistry with Wu, and the drama is hugely entertaining, even if derivative. Producer Johnnie To and action director Yuen Bun – a pair who would go on to work together on Milkyway Image action classics Beyond Hypothermia, A Hero Never Dies and Breaking News – ensure the action is top notch.
Days of Being Wild
Wong Kar-wai’s venerated second film, Days of Being Wild, sees Lau again having to share top billing. This time it is with a who’s who of Hong Kong cinema including Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau and Jacky Cheung. Most fans remember the film for Leslie Cheung’s riveting portrayal of York, a hedonistic and melancholic young man; but Lau, who plays a more modest, less scene-stealing policeman, gets the last laugh. Towards the end when York gives his famous “bird without legs” speech, it’s Lau’s character who slaps him down, sneering, “Enough. That shit only works on girls”.
Running Out of Time
This 1999 thriller is one of those rare occasions that the often squeaky clean Lau plays the role of villain (albeit a tragic one). A sprightly police procedural, Lau plays a man with weeks left to live, who decides to spend his remaining time planning a robbery. Opposite him is Ho (Sean Lau Ching-wan), a workaholic cop determined to foil his elaborate plans. With two formidable leads and Johnnie To directing, it’s got all the ingredients for a great film.
One of Milkyway Image’s biggest successes, Needing You was the kind of popular hit that allowed its co-founder, Johnnie To, to make his more personal, less commercial gangster movies. The popularity of this one rested on the sparkling chemistry between Lau and Sammi Cheng – something that saw them paired up again a year later in 2001’s Love on a Diet and, later, Blind Detective. A straightforward and beguiling romance, this is perfect for couples.
Love on a Diet
Proving that they do not need to rely on their good looks to sell a film, Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng reunite (with director Johnnie To along for the ride again too) and stuff themselves in fat suits. This time out, Lau is determined to help Cheng (ironically named Mini-Mo here) shed 200 pounds so she can reunite with a former boyfriend she has long pined for (it was their original break-up that caused her to gorge and gain weight). Although it’s not hard to guess the outcome of the film, Lau and Cheng are always enjoyable together and they work the heartstrings perfectly.
Remade for Hollywood as the Oscar-winning The Departed, Infernal Affairs is probably the best Hong Kong movie of the 21st century so far. Lau plays Lau Kin-ming, a triad mole within the police force starting to have second thoughts about his life. Opposite him is Tony Leung Chiu-wai as Chan Wing-yan, a police officer deep undercover in the triads desperate to get out. As their respective bosses become aware that there is a traitor in their midst, a fierce game of cat and mouse develops with both men’s lives on the line.
Fat Choi Spirit
This Lunar New Year classic sees Lau get all goofy with co-stars Louis Koo, Sean Lau and Gigi Leung. There’s not much in the way of plot – it basically boils down to Lau’s luck deserting him and how he needs to get it back – but the film is worth it for the ridiculous mahjong-based antics that ensue and Sean Lau’s hilarious gangster with a penchant for the game. Even if you don’t know much about mahjong, it’s still hugely entertaining.
A Simple Life
One of Lau’s more down-to-Earth films, A Simple Life focuses on Chung Chun-tao (Deanie Ip), an elderly housemaid forced into retirement following a stroke. The only member of the family she previously worked for who is still in Hong Kong is Roger (Lau), who by necessity takes care of her. Never overly dramatic or sentimental in the way one might expect of a Hong Kong movie (credit to director Ann Hui for that), A Simple Life is instead an organic and touching examination of an ordinary person’s life in Hong Kong.