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The Inimitable Francis Ng

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Anyone who knows Hong Kong Cinema knows the face of Francis Ng. However, although the actor is certainly prolific, his status as one of the industry's most popular and respected stars has not come simply as a result of his work rate, but rather due to his talent, and perhaps more importantly, to his versatility. Indeed, Ng is famed for his wide emotional range and varying choice of roles, which have seen him playing pretty much everything from quiet, sensitive types right through to raging psychopaths and bizarre oddballs. His impressive ability was recently recognized at the 25th Hong Kong International Film Festival, as Ng, along with Lau Ching Wan and Anthony Wong, was named as one of the three top character actors working in Hong Kong today.

Ng's interests are not limited to screen acting, and he has also tried his hand at directing on several occasions, as well as dabbling in theatre and stand up comedy to considerable success. By all accounts as interesting off-screen as well as on, having been involved in controversy on several occasions, his intensity and uncompromising passion have earned him the nickname "mental" one which is very fitting indeed, given some of the wild roles he has taken on over the years.

TVB Years

Francis Ng Chun Yu was born on December 21, 1961 in Hong Kong, and like so many of his contemporaries, began his career by enlisting in the TVB television studio's training program. His classmates in the 1982 class of TVB trainees included Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Stephen Chow, and Eddie Cheung. Inevitably, his early years saw him taking on a number of minor television roles in series such as Legend of the Condor Heroes, Happy Spirit, and The Last Performance. Ng never reached top television stardom, but he had established himself by the late eighties and early nineties through series like Stephen Chow's The Final Combat and the family sitcom Family Squad.

At the same time, he gradually worked his way into film appearances, featuring in the likes of Midnight Girls, Dragon Fighter, Fatal Game, and Jackie Chan's Second Strike. Although many of these only saw him onscreen briefly, Ng was always noticeable, bringing a certain ardour and dignity to even the most insignificant part.

It didn't take too long for his quality to shine through, and Ng's first career milestone came in 1992 when he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Handsome Siblings at the Hong Kong Film Awards. At the same time, he took the first of many professional risks by publicly criticizing TVB's casting policies, leading to him being banned by the station. Although unsurprisingly this would only prove to be temporary, it pushed him to launch his big screen career proper, and the next few years saw him winning increasingly substantial roles in films such as Ronny Yu's The Bride with White Hair and its sequel, the Jet Li vehicle The Kung Fu Cult Master, and a variety of comedies including Easy Money and The Golden Girls. At the same time, he branched out onto the stage, appearing in Naughty Couple with Anita Lee, which ran for a record breaking 70 shows and which inspired a film of the same name which he also starred in.

Young and Dangerous

Ng's breakthrough role arrived in 1995 with Young and Dangerous, the first in the long running triad series, which was directed by future Infernal Affairs helmer Andrew Lau, and which also starred Ekin Cheng, Jordan Chan, Simon Yam, and Gigi Lai. Not for the first or last time, the film saw the actor playing a villain, triad boss Ugly Kwan, giving Ng a real chance to make a name for himself thanks to a truly unrestrained, over-the-top performance which left the rest of the cast in the shade. The film, and indeed Ugly Kwan were incredibly popular, enough so to inspire an unofficial follow up in Once Upon a Time in a Triad Society, which saw the actor winning Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards. More spin-offs followed, and Ng basically played the same character in Once Upon a Time in Triad Society 2, Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars, and Sexy and Dangerous.

As with all Hong Kong film actors, once success came knocking, Ng's work rate increased substantially, and the rest of the decade saw him averaging a good eight or nine films per year. Unsurprisingly, a high proportion of these were of the action and triad genres, including 97 Aces Go Places with Tony Leung Chiu Wai, the Wong Jing-produced Satan Returns, Portland Street Blues, and the inevitable Young and Dangerous: The Prequel. At the same time, the actor took on a few more varied roles, notably the gay-themed A Queer Story, the crazy Wong Kai War lampooning Those Were the Days, and the Category III rated sleaze of Raped by an Angel 2: The Uniform Fan. Highlights during this burgeoning phase of Ng's career were the tough gangster thriller Too Many Ways To Be No. 1, Benny Chan's Big Bullet, and Ringo Lam's Full Alert, all of which teamed him with Lau Ching Wan, plus the amusing spooky comedies 24 Hours Ghost Story and Till death do us part.

1998 was an important year for Ng, as it saw him stepping up to direct for the first time with 9413, which he also starred in as a corrupt policeman trying to take control of his life. Although the film was generally well reviewed, winning a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Amanda Lee, it sadly flopped at the box office. Thankfully, this didn't deter the actor from taking up the reigns again a couple of years later, and it certainly didn't slow down his screen appearances, with 1999 finding him in no less than 10 films, which as usual spanned a number of different genres, with the horrors Believe it or Not, A Wicked Ghost, and the bizarre Last Ghost Standing, gangster thriller The H.K. Triad, and big budget action in Andrew Lau's A Man Called Hero, and Benny Chan's Gen-X Cops.

Ng ended the century on a high with two of his best roles to date, with his appearance in Wilson Yip's crime drama Bullets Over Summer winning him Best Actor from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, and his role in Johnnie To's cult favorite The Mission winning him Best Actor at the Golden Horse Awards. Given that he had been seen as an outside chance at best to win either, the back to back accolades finally announced that he had arrived as a serious talent.

From 2000 A.D. to a Return to TVB

The year 2000 brought Ng more acclaim as he was nominated for Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his performance in Wilson Yip's slow burn romantic drama Juliet in Love, playing a low ranked triad member who falls for Sandra Ng's divorced restaurant worker. Even better was his impressive turn in Gordon Chan's big budget thriller 2000 A.D., which saw him stretching his acting muscles by playing a character considerably older than himself, outshining nominal stars Aaron Kwok and Daniel Wu. The role helped raise his profile considerably, and won him Best Actor from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards, and Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Bauhinia Awards.

Needless to say, despite this success Ng still spent the next couple of years appearing in lesser productions and eccentric films, including the thriller A War Named Desire, future top director Soi Cheang's underrated chiller Horror Hotline - Big Head Monster, Patrick Yau's The Loser's Club, and even the romantic comedies Bakery Amour, and Fall For You. In 2000, Ng returned to directing with What is a Good Teacher, a searching examination of the Hong Kong education system in which he also starred, and which boasted a script by noted writer Raymond To. Despite its earnest intentions and a good cast including Anthony Wong, the film did not prove popular with audiences, though it received some reasonable reviews.

While Ng would remain undeterred, it would be a few years before he directed again. 2003 was another banner year for the actor, seeing him in Wong Jing's surprisingly good Colour of the Truth, the wacky Benny Chan thriller Heroic Duo, and blockbuster sequel Infernal Affairs II, for which he was nominated at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Actor. As might be expected, in the same year he also found the time to star in Shiver, an offbeat horror mystery from Billy Chung which gave him the opportunity to work again with Athena Chu after their memorable pairing in Raped by an Angel 2.

The following year provided a wide variety of roles for the actor, with the slapdash Lunar New Year comedies Fantasia and Himalaya Singh, the intelligent relationship drama Love Trilogy, the martial arts costume comedy The White Dragon, the police melodrama Crazy N' The City, and the Singaporean hitman drama One Last Dance, which also featured Harvey Keitel and the legendary Shaw Brothers and A Better Tomorrow star Ti Lung. As ever, Ng was arguably the best thing about most of these films, and again showed himself more than capable of switching between quiet dignity and wide eyed wackiness. Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, this period also saw Ng heading back to the small screen for roles in the TVB series Triumph in the Skies, as well as The Great Adventurer and Magic Chef.

Cartoons, Triads and More

Ng was as busy as ever in 2006, adding his voice to the cast of McDull, the Alumni and turning in what was a bizarre performance, even by his standards in the strange, misleadingly titled murder thriller Karmic Mahjong. The actor returned to more familiar ground with the Herman Yau directed undercover cop drama On the Edge and the ensemble triad piece Wo Hu, from the slightly less talented Marco Mak and Wong Jing. More excitingly, the same year also brought Exiled, Johnnie To's follow-up to The Mission, giving Ng the chance to reprise his award winning role in a more mature and thoughtful, though no less action packed and stylish production.

More Lunar New Year nonsense followed in 2007 with It's a Wonderful Life, as well as a handful of off the wall films including the strange psychological mystery The Closet, which saw Ng on fine, unhinged form, and the crazily over-stylized Wong Jing thriller Bullet and Brain, partnering him with Anthony Wong. More impressive was Soi Cheang's violent Dog Bite Dog follow-up Shamo, based upon the Japanese manga, which gave Ng a tailor-made role as a mysterious jail house martial arts teacher. In the same year, he took his third stab at directing, this time co-helming with Marco Mak on Dancing Lion, a scattershot film in the finest, most incomprehensible Hong Kong tradition. Although it could politely be described as being hard to follow, the film possessed a certain energy and quirky flair, fittingly enough for an unconventional performer like Ng.

Although 2008 only saw Ng taking on two roles, both were interesting, and saw the actor eschewing the mainstream for something more idiosyncratic. First up was Deadly Delicious, for Mainland director Zhao Tianyu, a curious battle of the sexes in which he played a man caught between two women in a tale of murder and food. This was followed by the equally intriguing Buttonman, a Taiwanese production with Ng playing a shady character that cleans up after mob murders. Sporting an unusual haircut and spending most of the film drinking in seedy bars, the film's protagonist was exactly the kind of character often associated with the actor, being ambiguous and ruthless, yet strangely likeable and sympathetic.

Tracing Shadow and Turning Point

This year has proved to be an important one for Ng, with him directing for the fourth time, again with Marco Mak, delving into one of the most beloved and uniquely Hong Kong of forms, the martial arts fantasy comedy with Tracing Shadow. With Ng unsurprisingly taking one of the lead roles for himself (not to mention showing off another outlandish hairdo), the film follows a group of kung fu masters who settle in a small rural village in the hopes of getting their hands on a fabled treasure map. This sets the scene for all manner of wackiness, as characters plot and scheme against each other in convoluted fashion, resulting in plenty of martial arts action and slapstick gags. Somewhat of a step up from Dancing Lion, the film sees Ng employing the same kinetic, though at times unfocused style, making for fun viewing in pleasingly old fashioned style.

Ng's most recent outing has been Turning Point, a Shaw Brothers production (their first since the uninspiring Drunken Monkey in 2002) which charts the early years of the incredibly popular Laughing Gor character from the 2009 TVB police drama E.U. Directed by Herman Yau, and with Michael Tse reprising his original role, backed by Ng as a mob boss and Anthony Wong, the film is an old school triad undercover cop thriller, and has a pleasantly familiar feel, not least since Tse starred with Ng in Young and Dangerous over ten years ago.

Although Ng was technically only a supporting player, he and Wong both effectively steal the film, again underlining his incredible screen presence - and it is this, coupled with his trademark versatility and ability to play almost any kind of character that has already ensured Francis Ng his place in the Hong Kong film industry's hall of fame.

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Published December 29, 2009

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