Actress Carina Lau has established herself as a formidable figure in the Hong Kong movie scene. But she was once just a young woman from Suzhou, China with a childhood that she still recalls fondly. “My childhood in Suzhou was beyond amazing. The weather, culture and the beauty of China is something that I can even remember clearly till today,” she says. “The scent of Ochna serrulata during rainy days, the smell of eating a popsicle when I was young, or even the pleasant scent of a blanket after it was aired under the sunlight every year before winter... I can remember all these things so clearly. Street food in Suzhou and folk crafts were also unforgettable.”
Lau moved to Hong Kong around the age of 15 to pursue acting as a career. At the time in the ’80s, Hong Kong cinema was considered to be in a golden age, with film companies like the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest dominating the scene, and Hong Kong films enjoying widespread success beyond its shores. The kind of films Lau had watched in mainland China had been limited, but after studying acting she was introduced to Italian films and French New Wave movies. “I was attracted by the way the actors acted, the quality, and the beauty seen in those movies. I absorbed a lot. Up till now, I still search for black-and-white movies to watch because they are really 'textbooks’ for the film industry,” she says.
Lau started her career in television, having trained in the acting classes of Hong Kong’s Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) but branched out to film later on — appearing in the movies of auteurs like Wong Kar Wai and Tsui Hark and becoming known for her delightful turns in comedies like “He’s a Woman, She’s A Man”. Like her husband actor Tony Leung, she is internationally recognised, having been nominated for Best Actress awards outside of the Hong Kong and China region — such as the Cannes and Osaka Film Festivals.
Left: Ralph Lauren Collection shirt and trousers. Bulgari B. zero1 earring in yellow gold with diamonds and ring in yellow gold. Right: Ralph Lauren Collection jacket, shirt, trousers, and bow tie.
However, despite the many accolades and her long, storied career in the industry, the decision to enter into the acting profession was a purely practical one for Lau. “I moved to Hong Kong with the intention to look for a job. Maybe because I was new to the place so I was not very used to the environment. Acting was something I had more confidence in and hence, I decided to give it a try,” says Lau.
As a performer, Lau feels that many factors are not within her control so strategising about her career was not something that she ever consciously did. “I think that [being] an actor is quite a passive occupation. Directors might have an ideal person in mind for that particular role — they will then approach you for it,” she says. Fortunately, many directors have found Lau to be the right person for a role. She plays the Empress Wu Zetian in Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee trilogy, and was asked by Wong to appear in his films, when the latter was impressed by her performance in “I Am Sorry” (1989).
It was her experience filming with Wong for his seminal movie “Days of Being Wild” (1990) that has had the most impact on Lau and she unsurprisingly names this as her most memorable role. The movie also starred many other Hong Kong cinema icons like Leung, Leslie Cheung and Andy Lau. “It was something different from the fixed ways of acting I [had] learnt in acting class. He [Wong Kar Wai] hoped to see actors living in the movie in order to have it seem natural. Back then, it was quite a challenge to the actors to forgo our own unique ways of acting.This was a turning point for me,”says Lau.
Ralph Lauren Collection shirt and trousers. Bulgari B.zero1 earring in yellow gold with diamonds. Bulgari x Mary Katrantzou Metamorphosis Top Handle bag.
Having been in the entertainment industry for over 35 years, Lau is in a good position to reflect on how the scene has changed over the years. “In the past, there was a gap between actors and their audience. But now, due to the Internet, the distance is shortened. This can be good. Audiences now can see us as real people — all- rounded and three-dimensional — and have a better understanding of who we really are."
This may be why Lau has chosen to share snippets of her personal life on her Instagram account, where her refined tastes in art, wine and décor have been duly noted by inquisitive fans. Lau says that she loves to shop online and is unapologetic about her tastes. “I enjoy living. I buy flowers for floral arrangements, or scented candles, music and wine. I love to drink wine. What is dining without wine? It’s all about the atmosphere. Life seems to be better with these things,” she says. She does qualify that the wine need not be expensive.
Lau’s homes, as seen on her Instagram account, have also garnered attention, thanks to her sophisticated design aesthetic. “Maybe because I was born in Suzhou, I encountered a lot of the Eastern aesthetic. My mother and grandfather draw as well, so I would observe their use and mixing of colours,” she says. Her family, her upbringing and her environment no doubt contributed to the development of her keen artistic eye. “Life itself is dull. So, you need to add colours into your life to make life and yourself beautiful. In the past I liked to buy clothes, but now I would rather visit museums and galleries when I travel,” she says, sharing that such visits help one to improve one’s taste.
Left: CK Calvin Klein jacket. Bulgari B.zero1 earring in yellow gold with diamonds. Right: Bulgari Serpenti earrings in white gold, diamonds and emerald eyes, and necklace in white gold with blue sapphire, emerald eyes and diamonds. Givenchy jacket and trousers. Bottega Veneta dress. Roger Vivier heels.
Reflecting on her career positively, Lau has found true value in her calling. “The longer I stay in this industry, the more I appreciate and respect my occupation. This occupation has a relatively low standard to enter, but to excel in it with a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment is tough. You have to be constantly learning and absorbing,” she says. And contrary to what many people out of the industry might perceive, acting is more that just looking good on camera. “Actually, being an actor is so much more than just appearance. An actor has to have a basic understanding of everything, such as music, art and history. On top of knowledge, they need to be sensitive and aware of the tiniest actions and emotions of people around. Acting is a very sensitive occupation,” she says.
As a movie veteran, it’s no surprise to find that Lau is extremely self-possessed, poised and professional. She does her own makeup for photo shoots and appearances. “I do it mainly to save time. I feel that I do not want to depend on others. This is a habit that I developed slowly as I grew older. You need to accommodate to the makeup artist’s time and emotions if [you] engage them,” she says.
Alexander McQueen jacket. Bulgari Serpenti earrings in white gold with diamonds and emerald eyes, ring in white gold with blue sapphire, emerald eyes and diamonds, and Viper single earring in rose, white and yellow gold with black rhodium.
The confidence also comes from feeling comfortable in her skin and in her own abilities. “As I try and explore, I guess I am the one who knows my look the best, and how to bring the best out of it. I learned it bit by bit. I think that regardless of what you do, if you give it time and learn it earnestly, you will not be disappointed with the outcome.”
Lau, who at 55 is exceptionally radiant and youthful, seems to be puzzled by all the fuss over her appearance. When asked about her interest in beauty, she says, “I barely have any skincare rituals. It is strange that so many people ask me about it. I do neither sunblock nor facials. But I like to exercise and sunbathe,” she says. Off camera, Lau is comfortable in sportwear and no makeup, and has been photographed as such, even sharing such pictures on her Instagram. The wall between the performer and the audience it seems, has indeed fallen.
Left: Ralph Lauren Collection jumpsuit and belt. Bottega Veneta earrings and bracelet. Right: Ralph Lauren Collection jacket, shirt, trousers, and bow tie.
Left: Bulgari x Mary Katrantzou Metamorphosis Top Handle bag. Bulgari B.zero1 necklace in rose gold and black ceramic, ring in rose gold and black ceramic, ring in rose gold and white ceramic, ring in yellow gold and Serpenti Viper bracelet in rose gold with diamonds. Givenchy jacket and trousers. Right: Ralph Lauren Collection jumpsuit.
Lau feels fortunate to be a working actor today. “The film industry is growing in a good way
— everything related to film is improving. So, I have been acquiring new skills throughout the process. People are investing large amounts into films these days; the market is huge too. So, I think that it is [great] to be an actor now,” she says. She names Chinese director Guan Hu as someone she would like to work with. “I watched two of his films. His work has a certain texture that I appreciate,” she says. Lau also enjoys challenging herself with theatre. “I really like the stage because it is out of my comfort zone. Stage shows require rehearsals. and the time that you finally interact with audience face to face can really be beneficial,” she says.
Unlike Leung, who will be appearing in Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” later this year, Lau has not ventured overseas for roles, nor considered doing a role in a language other than Cantonese or Chinese. “It is hard for me to act in another language. I think that verbal expression is something fundamental to all actors. You would need a really long time to source for a language teacher to master a new language before trying to act in another language,” she says. However. the right role might just persuade Lau otherwise. “With an attractive role and production team that I want to work with, I might be willing to spend a period of time to master a foreign language to better fit the role,” she says.
On success and happiness, Lau is measured and thoughtful. “I feel that the more I work, the further I am from success. People around me are all very successful,” she says. On happiness, she says that the definition has grown more complicated the older she gets. “As a kid, happiness was something simple. Now that I am older, I realise that happiness is not that simple. My take on it today would be: try to be simple, you will be much happier.”
Photographs: Nick Yang
Styling: Katherine Cao / CLSH
Fashion Editor: Jenine Oh
Producer: Elvis Dai / CLSH
Hair: Jay/ Jeleven
Makeup: Carina Lau
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