Mild at heart
In his new film, Jack Kao shows there's more to him than just playing tough guys, writes David Frazier
The massage parlour is in a dingy Taipei suburb, and girl number 303 is rubbing Jack Kao's shoulders. The miniskirted, bleached blonde asks, with a smoker's rasp: 'Hey, in one movie you had a big tattoo here. How did they do that? Did they stick it on? Because, you know, you had it in that scene in the sauna.'
'No,' says Kao. 'They drew it on. That ink doesn't come off in water.'
Perhaps almost as indelible as his tattoo is the 50-year-old actor's reputation for playing triad bosses, gangsters and, occasionally, police detectives. His string of such roles goes back nearly two decades, in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, in independent productions and with major studios, and in films by Tsui Hark, Johnnie To Kei-fung and Hou Hsiao-hsien.
'Last year, I was in four films, I was a gangster in every one,' Kao says. 'My appearance just has a gangster quality. Even gangsters have told me that I look and act even more like one of the brothers than they do. Sometimes they come up to me - they are always very respectful - and tell me that my performances are exactly right.'
But Kao's latest performance is already changing the way people see 'Brother Jack'. In the Taiwanese indie production God Man Dog, he takes a sharply human turn, playing a one-legged psychic with the compunction to help stray dogs, homeless gods and shifty hitchhikers.
God Man Dog comes to the Hong Kong International Film Festival this month with strong international sales and reviews, and Kao has been nominated - along with Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Jet Li Lianjie and others - for the best actor prize in the second annual Asian Film Awards, which takes place tomorrow. On the heels of the film's screening at the Berlin Film festival last month, German art-house director Monica Treut has also invited Kao to perform in what will be his first non-Asian production.
The character that has won Kao so much attention is Yellow Bull, a rustic, solitary keeper of a neon-lit Buddhist shrine, an almost magical glass-cased pantheon that he drives through Taiwan's central mountain range on the back of an 18-wheeled truck. Along the way, he stops to feed stray dogs and rummage through the undergrowth to find and repair discarded religious icons.
About a decade ago, before Taiwan established a national lottery, a number of illegal local lotteries existed. When people prayed to the gods for lucky numbers and lost, sometimes they'd toss out their figurines. These are what Yellow Bull rescues.
'In our urban society, things become obsolete so quickly, and I don't like that,' says Singing Chen Xinyi, the film's 34-year-old writer and director. 'But this character pays attention to small things. He's magnanimous and optimistic, very warm and full of feeling.'
Chen places Yellow Bull in the midst of Tarantino-esque twin story lines. A yuppie couple, following a miscarriage, founders in emptiness and shallow ambition. In the faraway countryside, an aboriginal man struggles with alcoholism and his village priest. Meanwhile, his kick-boxing daughter lives in the city with a model roommate, faking offers of sex to scam money from businessmen. A runaway teen rides in the luggage compartments of inter-city buses, stealing food to live.
The tale is an ambitious portrait of Taiwanese society and Yellow Bull provides stability at its heart. Yellow Bull's only selfish wish is to find the money to replace his worn-out prosthetic leg. But even that is infused with a gruff tenderness. In one memorable scene, he addresses a soliloquy directly to the old, battered limb, asking its forgiveness for wanting to replace it.
'I was already thinking of Jack for the part when I was writing the script,' says Chen. 'But a lot of people were really against it. The role called for a very soft touch.'
Unlike most, Chen recognised Kao's potential for tender roles after having seen him in a 2004 Taiwanese TV drama as a father with a degenerative neural disease similar to multiple sclerosis.
'His hands would involuntarily ball up and there were other losses of muscular control. When I saw that, I realised there was another side to him, beyond the gangster boss,' says Chen. The performance won Kao his first serious recognition, the best actor prize at that year's Asian TV Awards.
Kao says his role as Yellow Bull was 'a challenge, and I feel that I made some breakthroughs'. He says his current best actor nomination is 'a real affirmation and an encouragement'.
Being interviewed while having a full body rub was Kao's idea. 'I don't like all those formalities. I like to do these things as friends,' he explains.
His attitude is nothing new. 'In the beginning, I wasn't anything special. I just liked films,' he says.
But by hanging around in west Taipei's old theatre district, he happened to meet Hou Hsiao-hsien through friends. And Hou, still years away from his current status, found Kao full of entertaining stories, some so well fleshed-out that he began adapting them. The most famous example is the film Goodbye South, Goodbye, a story of second-generation mainland immigrants growing up in Taiwan and trying to start a nightclub back on the mainland. As their schemes turn to dust, their lives of impulse and boredom crash in a terrifying way.
'This all came from my life,' says Kao, who both starred in the film and is credited as one of its writers. 'These kinds of things happened to me and people I knew growing up.'
Kao's first role came in Hou's 1987 drama Daughter of the Nile, when the screenwriter noticed that Kao looked like an actor who had already been cast and suggested that he play his brother.
'At first I said, 'No, no. I'm not an actor. I'm just a businessman,'' laughs Kao. He was already 30 at the time, had no background in drama, and made a living by running a coffee shop and video-game parlour. But maybe Kao's untrained manner and effortless, streetwise intensity just dovetailed too well with the focus on social realism Hou and other directors of the New Taiwanese Cinema movement were then developing. Kao took the part, and a few years later, Hou had him in acting classes for his landmark picture, City of Sadness. It was the second of six films Kao would act in for Hou, and it was the only training he has ever had.
'Some actors really love acting and show it off all the time,' Kao says, relaxing into his chair. 'I'm not like that. Off stage, I'm pretty easygoing and don't think about it too much. At 30, I wasn't serious at all about acting. But it's been 20 years since.' He takes a breath and adds, 'Now I'd say I've become a real professional.'
God Man Dog screens on Wed, 9.30pm (UA Cityplaza) and Mar 29, 6pm (The Grand Cinema). Inquiries: www.hkiff.org.hk