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Lau returns with new ‘Odyssey’

Famed helmer back from five-year sabbatical

HONG KONG — One of the city’s best directors is no longer missing in action.

Jeff Lau all but disappeared from the Hong Kong film scene in 1997, when he abruptly quit directing and moved to Vancouver with his family.

“People ask me if it was difficult to leave the industry,” the 46-year-old says. “But I did it for my wife, so it wasn’t difficult at all.”

But when the director of “Chinese Odyssey” and “The Legendary La Rose Noire” left town, he also left thousands of disappointed fans behind.

Lau’s boosters are let down no longer. This month, “Chinese Odyssey 2002,” Lau’s first film in five years, is creating a sensation in Hong Kong cinemas.

Apart from the name, “2002” bears no relation to the original “Chinese Odyssey.” Lau’s self-penned Ming dynasty romantic comedy stars four of the region’s biggest talents: Tony Leung Chiu-wai and pop star Faye Wong (who both starred in director Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express,” which Lau produced), “Crouching Tiger” alum Chang Chen and rising Chinese talent Zhao Wei (“Shaolin Soccer”).

It was helmer and longtime friend Wong Kar-wai (“In the Mood for Love”) who lured Lau back to Hong Kong to direct “2002” for his Jet Tone Films. Says Lau: “I only did this project for my friend.”

“Odyssey 2002” is full of the goofball shtick local audiences expect from Chinese New Year holiday pics, yet with a narrative consistency most films of this type lack.

It looks as if Lau is happy to be back — he says he is — but this doesn’t mean he’ll be staying. Gone are the days when the director of 68 films — “and only one flop,” he says proudly — lived in a hotel away from his wife for eight work-obsessed years so he could get more writing done. But there’s a twinkle in his eye that suggests he could be tempted back for another project this time next year.

He’s adamant about the the fact that he prefers coaxing his six-year-old daughter through her homework than pushing a script through development. “Every day I take my little girl to and from school. I take my wife grocery shopping. It’s a beautiful life,” he says.