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Anthony Wong Chau Sang: The King of More than Just Category III

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Although teen racing drama Initial D and bloody, based-on-a-true-story, cannibal thriller The Untold Story may appear to be two films on opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum, they do have at least one thing in common - both feature Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong Chau Sang in award-winning roles. Similarly, it may be hard to believe, but the noble SP Wong in Infernal Affairs, and Kai San, the disease-carrying serial killer and rapist from Ebola Syndrome, possibly the most loathsome character in film history, are actually played by the same actor, and with the same amount of dedication and style.

This contrast in roles can be seen throughout Wong's twenty-year career, which has seen him act in over one hundred films and television dramas, as well as try his hand at directing himself. The actor has won multiple awards and become a cult favorite the world over, having proved himself at home in pretty much any type of role, be it policeman, triad boss, comic stooge, or maniacal killer. Aside from seemingly appearing in four or five films every year, he has also recorded a number of albums with his own punk music band, whose antagonistic and controversial song lyrics got them banned in mainland China and much of Hong Kong. Rather appropriately, like most of the actor's films, the band's music received the Category III rating, marking them as offensive material.

Wong is known not only for his acting talents and incredible versatility, but also for his famously outspoken, no-nonsense approach to the film business, never holding back on criticism or harsh words when he feels they are needed. He is never afraid to speak his mind, be it while working low budget productions or with the likes of John Woo, and his perfectionist approach has led some to label him as difficult to work with. Films which he himself starred in have not escaped his reproach, and he has quite openly admitted that much of his output in the late 1980s and early 1990s were exploitative trash, a fact that is hard to dispute when it includes the likes of Raped by an Angel 4: the Raper's Union. As a result, the actor has something of a prickly reputation, nicely summed up by fellow actor Simon Yam, who once said, "Anthony Wong... he's quite possibly the angriest man in Hong Kong."

Anthony Wong was born in September 1961 to a Chinese mother and British father, who subsequently abandoned them when he was four years old. At age 21, like so many other Hong Kong actors, he began his career at ATV through their actors' training course, where his classmates included future star Lau Ching Wan. Following this, he attended the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, honing his acting skills through theater before working at TVB, Hong Kong's famous television studio. At TVB, he appeared in various TV series, including The Justice of Life, which also starred a young Stephen Chow.

The actor broke into film in 1985 with roles in the Shaw Brothers prostitution drama My Name Ain't Suzie and the time travel thriller An Eternal Combat starring Lam Ching Ying. In the early years of his career, he slowly worked his way up to more prominent roles, paying his dues with the likes of A Moment of Romance 2, Her Fatal Ways III, and the Category III sex romp Erotic Ghost Story 2.

Wong finally got his big break in 1992 with villainous turns in Danny Lee and Herman Yau's infamous The Untold Story and John Woo's stunning bullet opera Hard Boiled. While the latter saw him playing an incredibly ruthless gang boss to convincing effect, it was perhaps the former, in which he portrayed real-life serial killer Wong Chi Hang who chopped up his victims and used their remains as pork bun filling, that really placed the actor into the public consciousness. Although Wong had been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards previously for his work on the comedy Now You See Love... Now You Don't with Chow Yun Fat, it was this shocking, but horribly believable performance that finally saw him take home a well-deserved Best Actor statuette.

These two notorious roles led to many offers of Category III films, which can be politely described as less respectable, but Wong was happy enough to take on the work as he needed to support his family and mother. As such, the actor starred in the likes of incest horrors Brother of Darkness and Daughter of Darkness, Love To Kill, A Lamb in Despair, The Deadly Camp, and inevitably, The Untold Story 2. Probably the craziest of the lot is the aforementioned Ebola Syndrome. The actor re-teamed with director Herman Yau for what amounted to a sleaze epic, filmed in both Hong Kong and South Africa, that basically rehashed the plot of The Untold Story with an even sicker twist and a liberal dose of dark slapstick humor. While Wong himself may understandably not be too proud of many of these films, they won the actor a certain following amongst exploitation fans, many of whom still fondly refer to him as "The King of Category III".

At the same time as starring in such morally dubious fare, Wong also carved out a niche for himself in the action genre, especially after his role in the 1994 violent thriller Rock n' Roll Cop, which for once saw him playing a more heroic figure. 1996 was an incredibly busy year for the actor. He appeared in the first three installments of director Andrew Lau's popular Young and Dangerous gangster series as a friend of lead star Ekin Cheng.

Amazingly, in the same year he acted in no less than ten other films, including supporting turns in the Jet Li-vehicle Black Mask, director Wilson Yip's Mongkok Story, and Viva Erotica, a film lampooning Hong Kong exploitation cinema starring the late Leslie Cheung and a young Shu Qi. In 1998, Wong again won Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards, this time for his outstanding performance as an amoral policeman in Dante Lam and Gordon Chan's gritty Beast Cops. Many still consider this to be his best performance.

Wong also turned his hand to directing with the bizarre New Tenant in 1995, a horror film in which he himself starred along with Lawrence Ng and Lau Ching Wan. The film is a strange and not entirely successful mixture of time travel, cannibalism, and ghosts, and it did not find much of an audience. He followed this in 1996 with Top Banana Club, a more straightforward comedy about a Hong Kong radio show, which sadly met with the same lack of success.

As the end of the century drew near, the actor gradually began to turn up in more commercial films, notably Johnnie To's ensemble triad drama The Mission in 1999. The film, still amongst the director's most popular and well-regarded works, saw Wong take the pivotal role of the cold-blooded killer Curtis and went on to win several accolades, including a Best Director award for To at the Hong Kong Film Awards. In 2000, Wong starred in Tsui Hark's Time and Tide, one of the actor's first films to receive significant international distribution, helping to bring the star to the attention of viewers across the world. Again showing his versatility, in 2001 he returned to the horror genre in Ann Hui's Visible Secret and lent his vocal talents to the hugely popular cartoon My Life as McDull.

Wong's years of hard work really began to show in 2002 when he won a Best Supporting Actor Golden Horse Award for his work on Sylvia Chang and Alan Yuen's tragic drama Princess-d. More importantly, he also starred in the blockbuster Infernal Affairs, again for director Andrew Lau, and delivered a moving performance that helped anchor the film's sense of righteousness. His performance added another Best Supporting Actor prize from the Hong Kong Film Awards to the actor's belt and further underlined his status as a top talent - no mean feat for a guy who first grabbed headlines as a chopper-wielding maniac.

Infernal Affairs and its two sequels, in which he also appeared to similar acclaim, clearly marked Wong as a genuine star. He went on to roles in big budget films such as The Twins Effect and Jackie Chan-vehicle The Medallion, both in 2003, followed by Stephen Fung's martial arts ensemble comedy House of Fury in 2005. In the same year, the actor's turn in Andrew Lau's manga adaptation Initial D won him yet another Best Supporting Actor prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his performance as pop star Jay Chou's father. At the same time, he continued to star in a variety of other films, including the low budget mortician drama Fu Bo, Wong Jing nonsense Slim Till Dead, and the lame haunted-camera horror Demoniac Flash, though why he chose to do so is anyone's guess.

More recently, Wong starred in Johnnie To's Exiled, rumored to be a follow-up to The Mission, which screened earlier at the 2006 Venice International Film Festival. He collaborated again with Herman Yau on the Infernal Affairs-influenced police thriller On the Edge. Interestingly, he has also completed work on the English-language film The Painted Veil with director John Curran. Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the films offers the prospect of seeing Wong on the big screen opposite Hollywood stars Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.

It is difficult to say what the future holds for an actor given to such diverse roles as Anthony Wong, especially since it is clear that he is still equally likely to pick up a chopper for his next film as he is yet another acting award to add to his ever growing tally. Whatever films he chooses to work on, be it low budget sleazes or glossy thrillers, his reputation as one of the most uncompromising and versatile actors working anywhere today is already secure.

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Published October 18, 2006

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