IT WAS 3AM when we staggered off the bus, bones aching and bums sore, at the Labrang Hotel in Xiahe. We had been on the road since 10am the day before: first, on a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, then on a four-hour flight from Shenzhen to Lanzhou, with an inexplicable one-hour stopover where they shooed us off the plane for 10 minutes. The rest of the time we spent bouncing around on the back of a bus from Lanzhou to Xiahe on roads with potholes bigger than the bus.
Welcome to location shooting in China. Although the country has countless scenic spots that look great onscreen, getting to them on China's undeveloped roads, especially with the lack of hygienic toilet facilities, can be hell. Our only consolation was that all the stars - including Andy Lau Tak-wah and Lam Ka-tung (the latter was on the bus with us) - have to endure the same journey.
Lanzhou and Xiahe are in Gansu province in northwestern China. It's a predominantly Muslim, arid, impoverished area close to the Gobi Desert and about 1,000 metres above sea level. Xiahe is also the site of the famous Labrang Monastery, where we were heading the next day to visit the set of A World Without Thieves, which is slated for a Christmas 2004 or Lunar New Year 2005 release.
It's a place of contradictions. Although it's hot and arid, we hesitate to drink too much because of the dire toilet facilities. You get sticky and dusty, but are advised not to take showers because a harmless chill in Hong Kong could quickly turn into serious pneumonia at that altitude.
By 10am the next day, we're standing in the blazing sun at the monastery, waiting to talk to the cast and director. We're not allowed to enter the monastery for our interviews, because photography is forbidden. Knowing this, Lau and Liu have decided to dress in ethnic togs to give the reporters a kick.
It's generous of Lau, considering he was pursued by three paparazzi tag teams the minute he arrived at Lanzhou airport, three days ahead of us. 'We shook them off twice,' says Lau, who recently won best actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Running on Karma. 'But by the time we got to the hotel they already had one team waiting for us. I don't know why they bothered pursuing us on those roads.'
Since his arrival, the paparazzi teams have reported avidly on his every movement, including what he has for his daily meals. It doesn't require a lot of investigation: Lau tells us he's been eating the same food every day since he got there.
A World Without Thieves, a co-production between Hong Kong Media Asia Films and China's Huayi Brothers, is directed by China's box office king Feng Xiaogang (Cellphone) and also stars one of China's top actors, Ge You, as well as Taiwanese award-winner Rene Liu Ruo-ying.
The film is about a female petty thief who tries to turn over a new leaf and attempts to protect a naive country bumpkin from who other thieves try to steal, as he makes his way from Beijing to Gansu. It's a road movie with bad roads.
It's the first time Lau, who has made more than 100 films, has worked with this combination of cast and crew. 'Feng is a very humorous man and, although Ge You tends to joke around a lot, you can tell he really has something inside,' he says. 'I think I will come out of this movie a much better actor.'
Ge, a Cannes best actor for To Live, has been grumbling that Lau is more popular than he is in China. 'Look at all those people screaming his name at the gates. No one is screaming mine,' says Ge, who has also been plagued by a headache because of the altitude, and can't move quickly.
The thin air hasn't bothered Lau, though. He's bouncy and perky as he appears on set, regaling us with a story about Feng not being able to climb the four flights of stairs to his room for a meeting.
'I came looking for him, only to find him resting on a chair on the second floor,' says Lau. 'He keeps asking me to move down to the second floor. All I can say is, he hasn't asked for a meeting with me since that night.' Lau says he, too, wheezed on the way back to his room.
Feng has been one of the leaders of mainstream commercial films that have come out of China in recent years. His work such as Big Shot's Funeral and Be There Or Be Square has broken box office records in the country. He hopes A World Without Thieves will be his big break out of China, although it isn't his first time making a film with non-mainland companies.
'Most foreign companies aim at cracking the Chinese mainland market,' he says. 'With Media Asia, I expect this film to have some legs outside China. They've done so well with Infernal Affairs.' And then he's off to shoot the day's two scenes, in which Lau and Liu squabble in a stolen car as they edge over the hill above the Labrang Monastery.
The shooting takes on a surreal hue, with lamas nonchalantly picking at fleas as they accidentally walk into the camera's view. Policemen who have been hired to keep order are themselves straining to catch a glimpse of Lau. Groups of people in gaily-coloured ethnic costumes have also gathered, screaming his name. Once or twice, the sharp trill of cellphones disrupts the filming.
'No one on this set must be louder than my voice!' booms Feng in irritation.
'He's always that loud,' says Lau, with a laugh. 'Once, they gave him a bullhorn and he spoke at the same volume!'
A little more than an hour later, shooting is over. For those of us on the set, there's little to be seen, with huge white boards surrounding the car and sand blowing in our faces every other minute. Feng is watching the scene through a tiny handheld monitor and headphones - not exactly the most sophisticated equipment.
None of this bothers the frenzied fans rushing to get Lau's autograph. He obliges a few before he's whisked off in his car.
Like the media, Lau faces the same horrendous journey home the next day, while his mainland colleagues carry on shooting at Labrang.
When he returns to location in a few days, the set will have moved to a place a further five hours away. And the roads won't be getting any better.