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The Evolution of Aaron Kwok

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Some actors take a while to hit their stride, and such has been the case with Aaron Kwok, who has spent many years paying his dues before finally being recognized as more than just a pretty face. Of course, he has been enjoying fame for nearly two decades now for his slick singing and dancing skills, being hailed as one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop, though it is only recently, with back to back wins at the 2005 and 2006 Golden Horse Awards for his stunning turns in Divergence and After This Our Exile, that his acting talent has also earned him the same kind of acclaim and respect. As such, he has now truly joined the A-list of Hong Kong performers equally adored on stage and screen, and with more high profile roles on the way and a third Golden Horse nomination for his latest work on Oxide Pang's The Detective, it seems that the best from Aaron Kwok may be yet to come.

First Steps

Kwok Fu Shing was born on October 26, 1965 in Hong Kong, where he grew up and attended school. After graduating he went to work in the family business, a small gold and jewelry store which his father had hoped to one day hand over to him. However, Kwok, known back then by the nickname Shing-Shing, had other plans, and in 1984 he joined a dancing course at the famous TVB studio where he quickly rose up through the ranks thanks to his natural ability, appearing in music videos and variety shows. His talent and screen presence were spotted in 1985, and he was immediately transferred to an acting training course, leading to a few brief appearances in television dramas. He graduated again in 1987, taking on the name Aaron and continuing to work as an actor and background entertainer, turning up in several series such as Everybody's Somebody's, Two of a Kind, The God & The Demons of Zu Mountain, and Song Bird, in which he appeared with Leon Lai and fellow newcomer Nadia Chan.

In 1989 Kwok made the decision to switch his career focus to Taiwan, where he struck it big through an appearance in a hugely popular commercial which featured him looking boyish and chasing after a girl on a motorbike. The commercial was such a hit that apparently girls all over the country tore posters of him off the street to take home. Enjoying this newfound popularity, he recorded and released his first music album, which included the now famous song "Loving You Forever". Making full use of his dancing skills to promote the record paid off and it was a smash hit, selling more than 300,000 copies in Taiwan alone.

The King of Stage

He returned to Hong Kong a star, being immediately ranked alongside Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau and Leon Lai as one of the Four Heavenly Kings of the music industry, with the Hong Kong media naming him "King of Stage" for his smooth dance moves. Predictably, this quickly led to his first proper big screen appearances in the 1989 action films The Big Heat and Close Escape, in which he featured along with the prolific martial arts star Dick Wei and Japanese actress Yukari Oshima. However, his music career was at the time a more pressing concern, and over the next few years he became one of the top recording artists, releasing many hit albums and winning numerous awards, though he was probably best known for his energetic live shows.

Kwok's popularity as a singer and dancer has certainly been at the heart of his rise to fame, and indeed has seen him go from strength to strength, still winning awards and enjoying sold-out tours in recent years. However, his career as an actor is arguably more interesting, as far from earning him the same kind of overnight success, it has seen him gradually earn critical respect, progressing from the kind of eye candy parts usually doled out to popstars, through to his more substantial roles of late. Certainly, it's fair to say that it is only now that he is being taken seriously as an actor, though there is a definite impression that this has come as a result of many years of hard work.

Big Screen Beginnings

1991 was the first big year for Kwok as an actor, which saw him taking on supporting roles in a number of high-profile productions, including the comedy The Queen of Gamble and the star-studded ensemble piece The Banquet. In the same year he also appeared alongside Andy Lau in the two sequels to his popular true life police corruption drama Lee Rock, though a more definite sign that he had arrived came with a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his turn in David Lai and Corey Yuen's Saviour of the Soul, a fantasy swordplay film headlined by Lau and Anita Mui.

As might be expected, many of Kwok's roles over the next few years made the most of his fame as a pop singer, such as Rhythm of Destiny, an early effort from director Andrew Lau who would later strike it big with the Infernal Affairs series, and A Moment of Romance 2, Benny Chan's sequel to his Andy Lau hit which offered Kwok a real teen heartthrob role in another tale of street racing and mismatched lovers. Although not a natural fighter by any stretch, his dancing ability made him an obvious choice for martial arts comedies, and Johnnie To, with whom he would work several times in the future, cast him in his 1993 film The Bare-Footed Kid, in which he featured alongside Maggie Cheung, Jacklyn Wu, and the legendary Shaw Brothers and A Better Tomorrow star Ti Lung.

More of the same came with The Kung Fu Scholar (sometimes passed off as a sequel to the Stephen Chow and Gong Li starring comedy Flirting Scholar) and the Wong Jing Streetfighter knockoff Future Cops which, despite boasting an amazing cast including Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Simon Yam, and Chingmy Yau, is quite possibly the craziest, most chaotic and senseless Hong Kong film ever made. Proving that he was comfortable in pretty much any genre, Kwok's early film appearances also covered heroic bloodshed with Gangs '92, triad comedy with Game Boy Kids, slapstick wuxia with Wong Jing's Legend of the Liquid Sword, and romance with Love is a Fairy Tale, which also starred Rosamund Kwan, still hot after her roles in the hit Jet Li and Tsui Hark-led Once Upon a Time in China series.

Slow Progress

Certainly, like most Hong Kong stars, Kwok spent the first few years of his film career managing to cram in an impressive number of performances, if not always in the most edifying of productions, and as such although he was a constant screen presence, he didn't exactly set the industry on fire. Perhaps as a result, his acting slowed down in favor of music, and incredibly he was absent from screens in 1994.

He returned in 1995 with Whatever Will Be, Will Be, a romantic comedy drama from future Battle of Wits director Jacob Cheung, which marked his first collaboration with fellow pop star Kelly Chen. Unsurprisingly, the film saw him playing to his strengths as a gym teacher in a role that demanded plenty of dancing and singing. He followed this up with the slightly more substantial Somebody Up There Likes Me, Patrick Leung's boxing drama which also featured an appearance from Sammo Hung. In 1996, he went back to television for Wars of Bribery, which proved to be a wise move as the series was immensely popular, and offered him a choice role as a righteous inspector who devotes his career to combating corruption. By this time there were definite signs that Kwok's acting career was finally beginning to take off, as evidenced by his 1998 appearances in the top romantic comedy Anna Magdalena, which saw him facing off with fellow poster boy Takeshi Kaneshiro for the heart of Kelly Chen, and in Andrew Lau's blockbuster fantasy The Storm Riders, the most expensive Hong Kong film ever made at the time, and which saw him onscreen alongside big names including Ekin Cheng, Shu Qi, and Sonny Chiba.

Blockbuster Boy

With the new millennium, Kwok took his leading man status to a new level with Gordon Chan's 2000 A.D., a big budget techno-thriller which also starred Daniel Wu and Francis Ng. Although the film itself was rather uninspiring, styled as a high profile blockbuster release it certainly provided him with a further foot up on the all important A-list ladder, and he followed it up immediately with the safe bet romantic comedy And I Hate You So, again with frequent co-star Kelly Chen. Kwok enjoyed another number one box office hit with action thriller China Strike Force in the same year, rounding things off with Para Para Sakura, a lighthearted romp set in Shanghai which gave him an opportunity to again show off his dancing skills, this time with Cecilia Cheung as his partner.

After another musical break Kwok returned in 2004 with Heat Team, a buddy cop thriller from Beast Cops and Twins Effect director Dante Lam which teamed him with pop peer Eason Chan. Though entertaining enough, the film was an unfortunately lightweight affair, and didn't exactly add much to the actor's repertoire. Thankfully, the same year saw him take on arguably his finest role yet in Johnnie To's Throw Down. With the director showing signs of a renaissance himself, the film was very different to the average Hong Kong martial arts thriller, being far more abstract and philosophical, and showing a definite Akira Kurosawa influence. Playing a mysterious drifter who frequently engages in bouts of friendly judo with co-star Louis Koo, Kwok's laidback performance suggested a hitherto unseen maturity in his acting which boded well for the future.

Awards and Rewards

This potential was fulfilled the next year through his work in Benny Chan's thriller Divergence, in which he appeared as an obsessive, down-on-his-luck cop haunted by the disappearance of his girlfriend. Whilst the film itself is a rather needlessly complicated affair, with oddly motivated characters and what may or may not be intentional ambiguity, Kwok certainly stands out, playing very much against type for the first time, and he duly won the Best Leading Actor prize at the 2005 Golden Horse Awards, beating out the much-fancied Hong Kong veteran Tony Leung Ka Fai for the honor. The role proved to be a real coming of age for the actor, also seeing him nominated at the Hong Kong Film Awards, and at last marked his being recognized as a serious thespian.

His success continued the next year with a career best turn in the long absent Patrick Tam's moving domestic drama After This Our Exile. The film offered Kwok a real challenge with a role as a deadbeat father struggling with his gambling addiction as he tries fruitlessly to take care of his young son (played by the equally excellent youngster Ian Iskandar Gouw, who also won a number of awards for his performance). He achieved the difficult task of adding a sense of humanity and even sympathy to such an unlikable character, and as a result again took home Best Leading Actor at the Golden Horse Awards, with another Hong Kong Film Awards nomination on the side. This in itself was a landmark achievement, as he became only the second actor to have won back to back Leading Man prizes at the Golden Horse Awards, the first being Jackie Chan in the 1990s.

The Detective and Beyond

Showing no signs of resting on his laurels, Kwok's next role, in Oxide Pang's twisting thriller The Detective, has already won him an incredible third consecutive Best Leading Actor nomination at this year's Golden Horse Awards. Again, the film sees him taking on a complex role, this time as a lowly private investigator in Thailand, hired to find a woman in a case that turns out to be far more than it initially seems. Whether or not his performance sees him grabbing the gold yet again remains to be seen, however what is certain is that Aaron Kwok is currently enjoying a spectacular run of form which is unlikely to end anytime soon - not bad for a guy who started his career as a pretty boy back-up dancer.

Published November 26, 2007

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