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Actress Carina Lau on the gamble that took her to Cannes

The performer is now a global star after her best actress nomination at Cannes, writes Vivian Chen

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 6:01pm

For award-winning actress Carina Lau Kar-ling, the glitter and glamour of the Cannes International Film Festival was nothing new.

However, the difference at this year's event was that she was in the thick of the action as a best actress nominee for her performance in the film Bends. The highly rated, slow-paced drama, directed by first-time filmmaker Flora Lau, was screened at the world's premier film festival.

Although Carina Lau didn't win the acting prize, her performance as a rich housewife abandoned by her husband earned international praise.

Now, the veteran actress is looking at a globe-trotting tour with Bends at film festivals from Toronto to London.

But Lau admits she struggled initially over whether she should take the offer from a first-time filmmaker.

"You bet I hesitated," says the beauty, sitting in her recently opened restaurant on the 18th floor of a busy Tsim Sha Tsui shopping mall. "I actually thought about it for quite some time before I committed."

Her main concern was not to make any more mistakes in her career - and understandably, a young filmmaker usually isn't a convincing element for a foolproof formula.

The character, however, offered the kind of challenge Lau has long sought in her roles.

Co-starring alongside famous mainland actor Chen Kun, Lau plays Anna Li, a middle-aged and rich woman married to a businessman.

The character enjoys a comfortable life until her husband disappears and her credit card is cancelled. The movie looks at her travails and those of her driver, played by Chen.

When Flora Lau was working on the script for Bends, she had Carina Lau in mind for the role of Anna Li.

"Flora based the character on me, and she was so persistent to cast me that without me she wouldn't make the film at all," the actress says.

"The character is really exciting, because there's a lot of depiction of subtle emotions."

She eventually agreed to star in the movie because of the film's top-notch production team, which consisted of veterans, such as producer Nansun Shi, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and artistic director William Chang Suk-ping.

"How could I say no to this line-up?" Lau says. "They've all been my mentors when I first joined the trade, and it's my turn to share my know-how with the younger generation as well."

The actress indeed had a lot of help and support from film industry veterans when she first entered show business about three decades ago.

Born in Suzhou, a scenic county in eastern China, Lau loved acting while she was growing up, but didn't start to pursue her craft professionally until she moved to Hong Kong with her family in the early 1980s.

She initially honed her skills with TVB, where she met the love of her life, fellow actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai. They married in Bhutan in 2008.

"When I started off acting at TVB, it was more or less a job," she says.

"My training early on was necessary, but was also on a very superficial level. What really changed me was when I met Wong Kar-wai, William Chang and other passionate and genius filmmakers."

Starting off with innocent girl-next-door characters, Lau made a major breakthrough in 1990 by playing a vivacious cabaret dancer in Days of Being Wild. The movie was directed by Wong and featured Leung and other industry heavyweights, such as Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk.

"I really get the hang of it when I feel like my soul is intertwined with the character I'm playing," Lau says. "That excitement is beyond what words could describe. I feel the character's pain, her helplessness, her everything. When I'm there, I secretly feel happy for my own acting."

Her impressive performance in the sombre drama earned her one of her five nominations for best actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

The others are for performances in Her Beautiful Life Lies (1989), Gigolo and Whore (1991), Intimates (1997) and Infernal Affairs II (2003).

More years of consistently high-quality work followed before Lau finally earned the holy grail of Hong Kong cinema.

In 2010, her portrayal of Wu Zetian - arguably the most feared empress in Chinese history - in Tsui Hark's sci-fi, mystery blockbuster, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, won her the award for Best Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

"I'd say never give up on your dreams," she says. "Destiny strikes you when you are least prepared, but as long as you are prepared your dream will come true. A hard-working person might not end up being successful, but a successful person is most definitely a hard worker."

The second installation of Detective Dee opened on September 27, but Lau says she is not thinking about potential awards coming her way.

"At this stage, I really don't need another trophy to prove that I know how to act," she says. "I have a lot of confidence in myself, and I'm sure I will become an even better actress in the future."

Acting is not the only thing on her plate right now. Lau has invested in industries such as fashion, watches and jewellery, and bars and nightclubs in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

She says venturing into different industries has made her a better actress and businesswoman.

"Life is full of opportunities, and I'm all for experiences," she says.

"When you invest your time and effort, whether it turned out to be a success or not, you learn something precious during the process."

While it may appear as if this "superwoman" has it all, Lau says it hasn't all been smooth sailing. Lessons learned from the ups and downs in her roller-coaster career has made her a stronger person.

"I don't think a superwoman doesn't feel the pain," she says.

"Rather, she knows better than anyone about the pain, understands it and accepts it.

"She's no longer vulnerable to that pain, because she knows what's best for her is to better utilise her resources for a balanced career, family life and social responsibilities."

Stretching herself thin between her acting career and business ventures, Lau says family support motivates her to wake up with a smile on her face every day.

"Family is my safety net," she says. "Having a supportive family motivates me to achieve more."

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