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Chow Yun Fat - All Smiles

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

As one of the few Hong Kong stars recognized and respected around the world, Chow Yun Fat is remarkable in that unlike Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jet Li, he has achieved this status not through martial arts skills, but through charm and charisma. His current popularity, which has seen him feature in the likes of Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower and the Hollywood blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean 3, is the result of a career spanning more than thirty years, during which he has won numerous accolades and topped the box office on countless occasions, starring in several key classics of Hong Kong cinema.

A surprisingly tall, handsome man whose intensity is somehow complimented by the ever present mischievous twinkle in his eye, Chow has been described by some critics as a Chinese version of Cary Grant or Alain Delon. Known mainly in the West for playing suave, honorable gangsters or equally righteous policemen, the actor actually has a far greater range than many might initially credit him with, and has proved himself time and time again in a variety of different genres as a truly versatile performer. Characterized as a nice guy on and off the screen, Chow is a multitalented individual, able to speak Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, a fact which has no doubt helped him on the long road to becoming one of the most famous stars in both the East and the West.

Chow Yun Fat was born in 1955 in Hong Kong on the small island of Lamma, not far from Victoria Harbour, where he spent his early years living on a farm, waking up at the crack of dawn each day, helping his mother and working in the fields. In 1965 he moved with his family to the city and after leaving school at the age of seventeen, he drifted through a variety of low-paying jobs such as bellboy, postman, and taxi driver. He finally got his show business break in 1973 after answering a newspaper advertisement for young actors placed by the famous TVB television studio. Like many other Hong Kong stars, he started his career in the TVB training program, before moving on to sign a contract with the studio and appearing in a variety of television series and soap operas. The handsome and charismatic Chow was a hit with viewers, and became a household name in the early 1980s after starring as a suave gangster in the incredibly popular series The Bund (also known as Shanghai Grand), a role which looked forward to the characters for which he would later become well known.

Despite his success on the small screen, Chow's film career, which actually began in 1976 with the Category III-rated comedy Massage Girls, had a bumpy start, and many of his early features performed poorly both at the box office and with critics. His first respectable role came in 1981 with director Ann Hui's drama The Story of Woo Viet, a film which finally gave him the chance to show what he was capable of, and which the actor even today lists as one of his favorites. Although his performance did win him some grudging recognition, Chow still struggled to find his cinematic stride, appearing in more forgettable romantic comedies and taking small parts in bigger productions such as the early Ronny Yu films The Postman Fights Back and The Occupant.

All of that changed in 1984 when Chow starred in Leung Po-Chi's Hong Kong 1941, a tragic drama set during the brutal WWII Japanese occupation which also featured Alex Man and Cecilia Yip. Chow's stunning central performance as a man faced by a series of increasingly difficult moral choices anchors the whole film and duly won him the Best Actor accolade at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards, as well as a nomination at the 4th Annual Hong Kong Film Awards. Importantly, the role brought out the actor's strength for playing honorable outlaw types and finally established him as a talent worth watching. As a result, the next couple of years saw a definite upturn in his fortunes, with more substantial roles in the likes of Dream Lovers, Women and Love Unto Waste for director Stanley Kwan (both of which earned the actor Best Actor nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards), and Derek Yee's The Lunatics, which also starred a young Tony Leung Chiu Wai.

In 1986, Chow finally hit the big time with A Better Tomorrow, directed by John Woo and produced by Tsui Hark. A genuine classic of Hong Kong cinema, the film was a massive success at the box office, raking in more than HK$35 million, as well as single-handedly launching the "heroic bloodshed" genre. Interestingly, the film had largely been designed to re-launch the career of veteran actor Ti Lung and to provide Leslie Cheung, then mainly known as a pop star, with a cinematic calling card, though upon release it was Chow's role as Mark which grabbed most of the attention. Indeed, the character had the same kind of influence on young males as the likes of Bruce Lee did, with many styling themselves after the righteous gangster, copying his wardrobe (the long coat worn by Chow in the film became very popular despite Hong Kong's high temperatures) and ever-present toothpick in mouth motif. The film was also popular with critics, and saw the actor claim Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for the first, though not the last time. As well as propelling Chow to stardom proper, the film also gave a boost to the career of director Woo, who had until then been mainly known for slapstick comedies. The two worked well together, and unsurprisingly decided to re-team the following year for A Better Tomorrow 2, which cleverly sidestepped the fact that Mark went down in a hail of bullets in the original by casting Chow as his twin brother.

Chow worked again several times with John Woo for the action classic The Killer, the light-hearted crime caper Once a Thief (which again saw him star alongside Leslie Cheung), and finally Hard Boiled, a film seemingly designed to be the very last word in the heroic bloodshed genre. The film was seen by many as the pair's attempt to attract the attention of Hollywood, which certainly proved true in the case of Woo, whose next film, Hard Target, was a U.S. production starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.

With Chow's place as one of Hong Kong's most bankable stars secure, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a period of intense work. The actor inevitably took on a number of roles inspired by his now established cool killer screen persona. Amongst the best of these were the actor's collaborations with director Ringo Lam, with whom he had studied back in his TVB days. These included the two Prison on Fire films, and the classic undercover police drama City on Fire, for which both Chow and Lam won prizes at the Hong Kong Film Awards, and which later famously served as the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. The two later worked together on Full Contact, an interesting slice of explosive action co-starring Simon Yam which proved extremely popular overseas despite being a flop in the domestic market, probably due to Chow's playing a distinctly less honorable type of criminal.

During this time he also appeared in a number of other action films such as the popular Tiger on the Beat, and the Rich and Famous series with Andy Lau. In 1989, Chow had another of his biggest hits in the form of Wong Jing's God of Gamblers, a wildly entertaining hybrid of the gangster and gambling genres with plenty of crazed slapstick in the infamous director's usual scatological style.

Chow was given more of a chance to stretch his acting muscles in Mabel Cheung's romance An Autumn's Tale, earning himself another Golden Horse award in the process, and in Johnnie To's All About Ah Long, for which he again won Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Of course, Chow's newfound success and respectability didn't stop him from appearing in a fair few duds during this period, most of which were lame comedies similar to those of his early career, such as Spiritual Love, Scared Stiff, and the marginally better Fractured Follies and The Eighth Happiness.

After the release of Hard Boiled and Full Contact in 1992, it was clear that Chow was starting to feel somewhat confined by the kind of roles being offered to him in Hong Kong, and it is perhaps understandable that after the 1995 production Peace Hotel, he headed West to try his luck in Hollywood. Following a two-year break which he spent trying to improve his English language skills, Chow made his U.S. debut in Antoine Fuqua's The Replacement Killers, in which he starred with Mira Sorvino. Given his reasons for leaving Hong Kong, it came as a bit of a disappointment that the actor had traveled halfway around the world simply to play yet another noble hitman. The film itself was a definite letdown, despite the fact that it allowed him to break his own Hong Kong record for the most rounds fired in a single scene (which he raised to a massive 500, having previously managed 300 in Hard Boiled). Sadly, his subsequent Hollywood outings The Corrupter and Anna and the King, a big budget remake of The King and I with Jodie Foster, proved equally underwhelming, and it seemed that the actor was doomed to follow the same path to mediocrity trodden in the West by other Asian stars.

Perhaps disillusioned with what Hollywood had to offer, Chow returned to Asia in 2000 to star in director Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which offered him a rare chance to act in period costume as an entirely different type of warrior than he had been used to playing in his earlier Hong Kong films. A huge success both commercially and critically, the film effectively rejuvenated the actor's career, awarding him a certain distinguished veteran type status and lifting him out of the relative slump into which his career had fallen.

Aside from a brief relapse with the Hollywood comic book adaptation Bulletproof Monk, Chow began taking on more interesting roles, finally freed from his action film typecasting, beginning with a cameo in the independent Chinese production Waiting Alone in 2004. He followed this with The Postmodern Life of My Aunt, a romantic comedy drama which reunited him with director Ann Hui. The film saw him playing an amateur opera singer and swindler in a supporting rather than leading role, though one which gave him plenty of opportunities to prove that his charismatic charms were every bit as effective as they were some twenty years back.

Next, the actor took on one of the grandest roles of his career as the Emperor in Zhang Yimou's epic costume drama Curse of the Golden Flower, in which he starred for the first time alongside another modern Chinese screen legend, actress Gong Li. The film saw the two giving stunning dramatic performances which surely rank amongst the best of their careers. No doubt boosted by their massive star power, Curse of the Golden Flower was a huge success across China, and was put forward as the country's entry for the 2007 Academy Awards.

Chow Yun Fat seems to have finally gotten the Hollywood break he deserves, starring in the third installment of the hugely popular Pirates of the Caribbean series with Johnny Depp, as well as Roger Spottiswoode's wartime drama The Children of Huang Shi. With the actor taking on a wider range of high-profile roles, it certainly looks as though Chow Yun Fat's revival is set to continue unabated.

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Published May 28, 2007

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