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Eric Tsang - Hong Kong's Biggest Talent

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Short of stature, with a permanently cheeky expression etched on his face and a rasping voice that sounds like he has smoked one cigarette too many, it's fair to say that Eric Tsang is nobody's idea of a traditional leading man. Yet in spite of, or perhaps even because of this, a career spanning more than thirty years and more than one hundred and fifty films has seen him become one of the most popular and beloved performers in the Hong Kong entertainment industry. As well as for his near constant presence on the silver screen, the actor is also well known for his outspoken views and often-outrageous ways as a television host and comic. However, behind the laughter and the bumbling onscreen persona with so many associate him, Tsang is also a skilled craftsman, being a talented director, producer and writer who has worked with some of the biggest names in the business and who has had a hand in a good number of the most popular Hong Kong films of the last few decades. Aside from his day job, he has several other strings to his bow, most notably his activities as a restauranteur, owning several establishments himself in both Hong Kong and Mainland China. As such, it's no surprise that his face, whilst not necessarily one of the most handsome, is easily one of the most recognizable in Asian Cinema.

From Soccer to Stunts to Cinema City

Eric Tsang Chi Wai was born on April 14, 1953 in Hong Kong to a family from Wuhua in Guangdong Province in China. Hard to believe as it may be, Tsang actually started out as a professional soccer player, following in the footsteps of his father Tsang Kai, until at the age of twenty three he decided to do something different and to forge his own path. Through his time as a player he had gotten to know Sammo Hung and Lau Kar Leung, and he approached them about a change of direction. Although Tsang did not know any martial arts, he had some physical skills, and was able to make a start in the business as a stuntman, with his short height meaning that he often acted as a double for female performers. Unsurprisingly, most of his early roles were in martial arts films, and he turned up in several Shaw Brothers productions such as the Chang Cheh directed Five Shaolin Masters and Na Cha. He also worked with Sammo on several occasions, including the Angela Mao vehicle The Tournament and his 1977 classic The Iron-Fisted Monk.

The following year, Tsang branched out into screenwriting with the script for the immortal Shaw hit The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, for which he spent a great deal of time and effort researching martial arts philosophy and the various animal styles. After following this with another successful writing gig on Sammo's excellently titled kung fu comedy Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog, he continued developing his skills behind the camera by working as assistant director on the Jackie Chan smash Fearless Hyena. Tsang was finally given the chance to direct with the thrillers The Challenger and The Loot, both of which he also starred him and both of which earned him favorable notices.

Joining Tsui Hark's Cinema City studio along with friend Karl Maka, Tsang began to find more comedy roles coming his way, mainly since his appearance and skills made him a natural for slapstick. Turning up in the likes of Crazy Couple, By Hook or by Crook, Chasing Girls, Tsui's All the Wrong Clues, and the ghostly comedy Till Death Do We Scare, he was often cast as the butt of the jokes. In 1982 he had his first directorial smash with the action comedy Aces Go Places (released in the West as Mad Mission), a zany Bond spoof in the uniquely scattershot Hong Kong style starring Sam Hui and Maka. The film was popular enough to inspire no less than four sequels, the first of which Tsang himself directed the following year.

A Rising Star at Golden Harvest

In 1984 Tsang decided to leave the confines of Cinema City, reteaming at Golden Harvest with Sammo Hung, who had approached him to star in and work on My Lucky Stars, a follow-up of sorts to his smash hit 1983 action comedy Winners and Sinners. Along with Hung's co-star Jackie Chan, the film boasted a great cast of top Hong Kong talent including Yuen Biao, Richard Ng, and Charlie Chin. The film was another blockbuster, and inspired yet more sequels, Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars and Lucky Stars Go Places, the latter which Tsang, also directed, taking over from Hung. The actor went on to work with Sammo and Jackie Chan on several other occasions over the next few years, turning up in Millionaire's Express and The Fortune Code, and co-directing Armour of God.

The rest of the 1980s saw Tsang's star continuing to rise, with him gaining popularity and recognition mainly for his comic roles, generally adopting the same crude, clumsy and leering persona as in the Lucky Stars films. This was a pretty good indication of the parts the actor was offered during this period, though at least he was certainly busy, averaging a good ten or so films a year. These did include several profile-boosting hits, such as Wong Jing's The Romancing Star, in which he starred with Chow Yun Fat and Maggie Cheung, plus the sequel The Romancing Star 2 , which added Andy Lau to the cast - notably, in both films Tsang played a character with the undignified moniker of "Ugly". Double Fattiness, with Lydia Shum and Bill Tung was another comic outing, as was the Chow Yun Fat and Anita Mui spooky vehicle Sacred Stiff, and franchise starter It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World. Interestingly, during the late 1980s Tsang worked with several directors who would go on to become big names themselves, such as Johnnie To on Seven Years Itch and Jeffrey Lau on Carry on Hotel.

Tsang did manage a few non-comic, or at least slightly more serious roles, including the period piece Golden Swallow, tough action sequel In the Line of Duty 3, and the category III rated shocker Fatal Vacation, which he also directed. Although the type of characters he tended to play obviously limited his being taken seriously as an actor, he was recognized a couple of times at the Hong Kong Film Awards during his early years, being nominated for Best Actor for the 1987 Patrick Tam directed and Wong Kar Wai written crime drama Final Victory, and then for Best Supporting Actor in 1988 for Clara Law's The Other 1/2 & the Other.

Taking Things a Little More Seriously

Apparently encouraged by his daughter, the 1990s saw Tsang attempting to establish himself as more of a serious actor - perhaps unsurprisingly, given that although a near permanent fixture on Hong Kong screens, he was still very much stuck playing slapstick comic relief sidekicks. This paid off when in 1991 he won his first Best Actor Hong Kong Film Award, for his role in Peter Chan's romantic drama Alan and Eric - Between Hello and Goodbye, in which he starred with his friend Alan Tam and which he also produced. Around the same time, Tsang also appeared in a number of action and Triad thrillers, such as The Last Blood and The Tigers, as well as producing Ann Hui's Zodiac Killers. 1992 was another key year for the actor, in which he made the bold move of setting up Untied Filmmakers Organisation (UFO), his own production company, which he founded with Alan Tam.

As the decade progressed, Tsang made a real effort to gradually move into more respectable, or at least more diverse fare, whilst at the same time never quite turning his back on the kind of broad comedy for which he was still best known. As such, the continuingly high number of films he appeared in each year showed more and more variety, encompassing humor with The Days of Being Dumb and Chez 'n Ham, romance with Anna Magdalena and Fly Me to Polaris, action with Gen-X Cops and Hitman, Triad drama with Jiang Hu - the Triad Zone and horror with the anthology piece Three. Through these and far too many other films to list here, he actor was slowly becoming recognized as a versatile talent, perfectly able to play things straight when required, and skilled at adding a certain down to earth humanity to his roles.

Tsang's efforts did not go unnoticed by the critics, and the awards finally started to roll in. Following another 1994 collaboration with Peter Chan on He's a Woman, She's a Man, the actor gave his most accomplished performance to date in Chan's 1996 drama Comrades, Almost a Love Story, in which he played a gang boss alongside Leon Lai and Maggie Cheung. The film swept the board at the Hong Kong Film Awards, taking home all the big prizes, with Tsang himself picking up a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor trophy, as well as a nomination at the Golden Horse Awards. Unsurprisingly, the actor and director continued to work together on a number of other occasions, including the films Who's the Woman, Who's the Man, The Age of Miracles and The Eye, on which he acted as executive producer.

More award nominations arrived in 1997, for Patrick Leung's crime drama Task Force, in 1998 for Stanley Kwan's Hold Me Tight, for which he actually won at the Golden Horse Awards, and in 1998 for Metade Fumaca. As such, although he was yet to achieve leading man status, Tsang was now only a step away from being recognized as part of Hong Kong's acting elite.

Golden Chicken and Infernal Affairs

In 2002 he made that step with two films, beginning with Golden Chicken, a comedy drama in which he played a failed thief who runs into a prostitute played by Sandra Ng and spends the night listening to her life story, basically providing a modern history of Hong Kong from an everyday person's perspective. The film really resonated with local audiences, and was a massive popular and critical hit, pushing Tsang's career to the next level. Inevitably, the film spawned a sequel in 2003, though this time he served as executive producer rather than repeating his role.

In the same year, he had an even bigger and more important hit with Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs, playing a tricky triad boss. Easily the best Hong Kong thriller in years, the film pushed Tsang even further into the spotlight, topping the box office and earning a successful international release. His excellent performance in one of the films' most memorable roles, which he reprised for the two sequels, won him a nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Supporting Actor, and underlined the fact that he had all but left his bumbling comedy sidekick persona behind.

The following years saw Tsang continue to feature in high-profile releases, notably Pang Ho Cheung's superb dark comedy Men Suddenly in Black in 2003, which gave the actor the chance to show that his talent for humor didn't only run to base slapstick. This was followed in 2004 by somewhat sillier laughs in the form of In-Laws, Out-Laws and Papa Loves You before the actor returned to the ever popular subject of Triads with Jiang Hu. 2005 saw the actor's stock continue to soar with roles in the likes of Wong Jing sequel Color of the Loyalty, action with Benny Chan's Divergence, drama with Derek Yee's 2 Young, and yet more Triads with Ah Sou. In the same year, Tsang also reteamed with Peter Chan for his award winning musical Perhaps Love, which again won the actor further international exposure.

Cartoons, Triads, and Everything In Between

Whereas success has seen many Hong Kong performers slowing down somewhat, the last couple of years have seen Tsang continuing to pack in films, perhaps keen to capitalize on the far more interesting kind of roles now at last coming his way. In 2006, this saw him appearing in such diverse productions as the animated McDull, The Alumni, Thai director Pen Ek Ratanaruang's Pan-Asian art house effort Invisible Waves, heavy drama with The Tokyo Trial from Mainland China, and perhaps inevitably, Triads again with Wo Hu. At the same time, Tsang also continued to work behind the cameras, producing Jingle Ma's Happy Birthday and Patrick Tam's award-winning return to form After This Our Exile.

Tsang has spent the last couple of years continuing in the same manner, balancing roles in smaller films with roles in more commercially minded blockbusters - for example in 2007 he starred in Derek Kwok's low-key, melancholy crime thriller The Pye-Dog, the excessively action packed Bullet & Brain, and the broad comedies Simply Actors and Beauty and the 7 Beasts. In the same year, the actor also picked up another award, this time for his performance in the internationally produced, Canadian set Dragon Boys, a drama which, unsurprisingly, revolved around the activities of Triad gangs. 2008 has seen him taking on more of the same, appearing in a wide variety of films such as the popcorn blockbuster and Jay Chou vehicle Kung Fu Dunk, the youth drama Happy Funeral, the oddball Tea Fight and Derek Kwok's eclectic crime story The Moss.

Whilst it's uncertain what Tsang will try his hand at next, one thing that is clear is that after more than thirty years on Hong Kong screens he has finally proved beyond doubt that he can handle pretty much any kind of role imaginable. As such, viewers can expect to see him popping up several times at least over the coming years, whether it be in action, romance, drama, or low-brow slapstick comedy.

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Published November 25, 2008

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