Hong Kong's Biggest Star Comes to Hollywood
Despite the title of his recent retrospective -- "The Coolest Actor in the World" -- at the Museum of Fine Arts, Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat denies he's the coolest actor in the world. "Clint Eastwood," he says simply. "He doesn't have to move his face or body to be cool, just maybe jerking a shoulder to pull a gun up. Sometimes a vein will pop up on his forehead or his hair gets a little mussed up. But what does it mean to be cool? You can be cool or you can have a different dimension of performance. I'm in a film career where I can do many different things, a comedy, a James Bond flick. But the top cool guys don't necessarily have those options."In other words, you can be cool or you can act, a choice Chow seems to be facing as he attempts to make his transition from a Hong Kong soon to be incorporated by the Communist mainland to a Hollywood not known for its flexibility or Asian superstars. For the hundreds of American fans who swarmed the museum screenings, for the film-festival goers, film scholars, and critics who have lauded his work, for filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino who have learned from it, not to mention his millions of fans in Asia and in Chinatowns around the world, Chow does both. He has an aura of cool that's more ineffable than the granite pose of Eastwood but no less charismatic.Much of it comes across in person. Dressed in a conservative dark blue suit and tie, he's a big guy but not imposing, with the grace of a dancer, a brilliant grin that's both engaging and insinuating. His features and body language communicate more than his still limited English can articulate, and though he has a presence, he doesn't seem to be packing any weapons.His kind of cool responds best to the camera; it's defined by moments from his movies, which have become much-imitated classics. Take an early scene in A Better Tomorrow (1986), his first collaboration with John Woo and the breakthrough hit for both of them, to be followed by such stylish ultraviolent hits as The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990), and Hard Boiled (1993). In Tomorrow, he's a suave counterfeiter named Mark, and after demonstrating his panache by lighting a cigarette with a fake C-note, he gets really mad when some thug double-crosses his partner. In an action sequence Quentin could only dream about making, Chow tangos in slow motion down a hallway with a beautiful woman in his arms and, with each dip, kiss, and fondling, deposits a Beretta in a potted plant. Elegantly entering the dining room where the bad guy and his gloating cronies are eating, he pulls out two pistols and begins a bloodspattered reckoning that ends with him back out in the hallway, his last secreted gun in hand, dragging his bullet-shattered leg behind him in a bright red trail.It's more than just a shootout; its a mini-tragedy of the macho spirit, with Chow's play of emotion mirroring Woo's dazzling stylistic tour de force. And isn't there something familiar in his gunplay? It's the kind of two-fisted fusillade we've seen in such later films as Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1993) -- which has been accused (with some justice) of being a ripoff of another Chow actioner, City on Fire -- and Robert Rodriguez's Desperado."I don't mind," laughs Chow when asked whether he finds the imitation less than flattering. "Maybe we can make a movie together and use six-guns." Although he won't comment on whether Tarantino has plagiarized from him, he's ready to acknowledge a debt. "I was absolutely surprised when I realized my films were being appreciated in America, and I think it all started after Quentin made Reservoir Dogs. A lot of young filmmakers then went to Hong Kong films to get ideas on stories and style."Still, it remains to be seen whether those who benefited from Chow's talent will give the original a break now that he's trying to make it in Hollywood. Tarantino, who promised Chow a script, has yet to come through ("Actually, he did suggest acting a role beside me," says Chow. "He's a good actor and director, but maybe not both at the same time.") Then again, since Pulp Fiction, Tarantino doesn't seem to be coming through with a script for anyone. John Woo, who has already established himself here with Hard Target and this year's highly successful Broken Arrow, remains Chow's best friend and supporter but can't make an American movie with him because his studio contract has tied him up with projects for the next few years.So Chow is left on his own resources, which include his sterling Hong Kong reputation and iconic image and a small managerial team that includes his pretty and resolute wife, Jasmine. Despite the success of Woo and his fellow Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan, whose American releases Rumble in the Bronx and the recent Supercop have been hits, Chow knows he faces a tough struggle before he can achieve his own better tomorrow."The transition is not easy. A lot of people warned me that Hollywood wouldn't allow Asian actor in the market, with the exception of Joan Chen and John Lone. The roles are very limited. It's very humbling to try to adjust here. The hardest is the language, listening to every single word to get it right. I've been in Los Angeles for nine months, and I watch hours of TV; the talk shows especially are good for learning colloquialisms and slang. For the past three months I've studied for two hours every day, learning the pronunciation. Sometimes my wife gives me a hard time. 'Finish those two pages or you can't go to dim sum!'"His English is not so proficient that he doesn't need to have the phrase "high concept" explained to him. He seems to have gotten the process down, though, since he's offered himself up to studio image makers and producers in order to get a toehold in America."My job is to get people to know who I am. Promotion is very important to me. I have people trying to package me as 'the Asian Mel Gibson' or something like that. Something that will stick in their minds. I think producers already have the idea on how to project my image. People recognize me as the antihero, the action type. Not kung fu, the Jackie Chan type, but the two-gun-slinging antihero of the John Woo or gangster or killer movie. That's mostly my market. But once I make my mark, I want to expand into other roles."As those who attended the Museum of Fine Arts series can attest, Chow's acting range is deep and wide. In God of Gamblers he gets to be both Sean Connery and Jerry Lewis when a blow to the head reduces his sophisticated and invincible gambler character to a chocolate-craving amnesiac dolt. Then there's An Autumn Tale, in which he demonstrates a knack for romantic and broad comedy as he plays a down-and-out illegal alien in New York who falls for a Hong Kong exchange student. Perhaps the most moving film in the series was Dream Lovers, in which he shows restraint and passion as a man who meets a woman he loved 2000 years ago. Each role is unique and illuminated by something that can only be called star quality.Will that star shine in its new locale? Chow has a couple of projects in development. One is a "black comedy" called The Replacement Killers, in which he'll play an unwilling and inept assassin who must be replaced -- by someone who'll be charged with assassinating him. As yet without a director or finalized script, that film probably won't start shooting for a while. Another project that could highlight the full range of Chow's talents is a remake of The King and I, which will probably start in four months."We could make more than three films in Hong Kong in that time," he sighs. "It's very difficult with a lot of the people you have to face every day. That's why a lot of directors are yelling all the time: they are so fed up with all of the non-business of their business. It's not healthy for the movie. I tell myself that I must train to be a politician someday to deal with it."Meanwhile I'm enjoying the free time. I can get in touch with who I am. Hiking. Cooking. Hanging around the supermarket. The farmer's market. It's a lot of fun. You can feel a lot of energy there. You can smell and touch the farm. I enjoy it -- it takes me back to my childhood in a small fishing village, when I first encountered acting from the visiting Chinese Opera company at the age of five. And not being recognized I feel as free as a bird. I can walk anywhere outside of Chinatown -- where I'd get mobbed -- because nobody knows me. It's a very relaxing thing for an actor. But I may not feel that way if it goes on for a year or two."Of course, if this American experiment doesn't work out, Chow is firmly based in Hong Kong. "I still live there with my family and four dogs and am keeping my Hong Kong passport. In fact, about a week ago they actually had a TV show in which they asked viewers to call in their choices for a mayor of the new Hong Kong. Most of them selected me. I think it's a positive thing."Would he consider running?"I am not a politician," he laughs. "I am not a Democrat or Republican. I'm an actor."