Actor-writer-director Xu Zheng scores with Lost In Hong Kong

Actor-director Xu Zheng (above) plays a bra designer in madcap comedy Lost In Hong Kong, which also stars Bao Bei'er.
Actor-director Xu Zheng (above) plays a bra designer in madcap comedy Lost In Hong Kong, which also stars Bao Bei'er.PHOTOS: ENCORE FILMS
Actor-director Xu Zheng plays a bra designer (left) in madcap comedy Lost In Hong Kong, which also stars Bao Bei'er (right).
Actor-director Xu Zheng plays a bra designer (left) in madcap comedy Lost In Hong Kong, which also stars Bao Bei'er (right).PHOTOS: ENCORE FILMS

Director of hit movie Lost In Thailand, Chinese actor Xu Zheng, scores another hit with Lost In Hong Kong

References to auteur Wong Kar Wai's arthouse movies are rife in mainstream comedy Lost In Hong Kong.

There are lines pointing to "one- minute friends" from Days Of Being Wild (1990) and expired pineapple cans from Chungking Express (1994). And a hotel room is numbered 2046 - a nod, obviously, to Wong's sci-fi drama 2046 (2004).

Speaking to local media over WeChat while in Fuzhou, actor- writer-director Xu Zheng, 43, says: "Only when the film was strung together as a whole did I discover that I really love his films. Indeed, the dialogues in Wong Kar Wai's films leave such a strong impression that the moment they are uttered, everyone knows where they are from."

Lost In Hong Kong, now showing in cinemas, is an affectionate love letter to the territory. Apart from movie references, the hit film's soundtrack is packed with Cantopop classics from Hong Kong music legends such as Danny Chan, Leslie Cheung and Beyond.

Last week, The Guardian news website reported that the comedy posted debut box-office earnings of US$100 million (S$143 million) in China, sending it to the top of the global film charts.

Lost In Hong Kong might be a madcap comedy about a middle- aged bra designer, played by Xu, seeking to reconnect with his college love. But there is no doubt that it is a thoughtful one.

The choice of setting is linked to the protagonist holding on to the past. As the director puts it: "Hong Kong is a place filled with nostalgia for the past. Its old movies and songs are part of our memories and of our growing-up process."

As the third instalment of the wildly successful Lost series of films, it would have been easy to play things safe.

Lost On Journey (2010), also starring Xu but directed by Raymond Yip, made 46.5 million yuan (S$10.4 million). The follow-up, Lost In Thailand (2012), marked Xu's directorial debut and earned 1.26 billion yuan. Described by some as "the Chinese Hangover" movie, it became the secondhighest grossing movie of all time in China, behind the fantasy adventure Monster Hunt (2015).

Xu says: "We've dared to try something different with the content and not done a direct sequel. What I want to do is to find that balance between meeting audience expectations and exploring our themes satisfactorily."

The new film is not merely about replacing Thailand with Hong Kong in the title. He says: "We still had to find a story and a predicament for the protagonist. After we nail the story and theme would we think about a suitable place to set it. We don't want to make a travelogue series."

The risk has paid off. On its opening day alone, Lost In Hong Kong took in 208 million yuan.

Xu admits that he does face a certain amount of pressure with this new entry. "The expectation is that Lost In Hong Kong would do well at the box office and if it doesn't, then it's seen as a failure. Even if it does well financially, but is panned by audiences, then that's a failure as well. But I can't do something that pleases everyone, so that gives me pressure," he says.

He need not have worried - based on the film's box-office takings alone, the Western press is hailing him as a comedic force larger than Judd Apatow.

Still, the predicaments of being a successful comedic actor and director is one that many would no doubt love to be in.

It is a role that Xu wrestled with initially. He says: "I never thought I would do comedy but I've unwittingly become a comic actor. It took me a long time to digest this fact. But when I started making comedies, I realised that this was the language I needed."

After graduating from Shanghai Theatre Academy in 1994, he joined the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre as a stage actor. He later got his big break on television in the wacky romance series Sunny Piggy (2000), in which he played the titular role.

He married his Sunny Piggy co-star Tao Hong, 43, in 2002, and they have a six-year-old daughter.

He is now committed to making people laugh and intends to stick with the genre in his directorial works. "But if it's just me acting, then it doesn't necessarily have to be comedy as I'd like to try other types of roles as well," he adds.

•Lost In Hong Kong is showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2015, with the headline 'Lost director finds his way in comedy'. Print Edition | Subscribe