TODAY REPRESENTS an important career milestone for Tsui Tin-yau, the singer-songwriter, film actor, mystery novel writer, and Aaron Kwok Fu-shing doppelganger whenever he knits his eyebrows. As one half of noughties boy band Shine, the actor is finding himself in a rather unlikely position. After playing supporting roles in only a handful of titles in recent years, he figures prominently in two Hong Kong films, The Midnight After and Enthralled, opening on the same day.
This wouldn't have been possible but for a rainy Saturday years ago, one that he still remembers vividly. A Form Three student, Tsui was wandering the streets with a few friends after their playground basketball plans were scuppered by the weather. It was when they were hanging around the Mong Kok police station that Tsui was approached by "a few bulky men".
One of them was the film director Fruit Chan Gor, who asked, "Hey, do you want to be in TV commercials?"
To which Tsui replied, "No."
"I'm Fruit Chan - you've never heard of me before?"
"No, I've never heard of you before."
As he recounts the fateful encounter that launched his entertainment career, Tsui - who is often credited with the alternative spelling Chui Tien-you - can't help but let a smile break through his typically stoic expression. "You know, these scams were really common. At the time, all I was thinking was: 'I've never thought that I would actually come across one myself'!"
After he was persuaded by his sister that Chan - the indie filmmaker fresh from his success with Made in Hong Kong (1997) - was legitimate, Tsui ended up in a lemon tea commercial, in which the teenager was awkwardly asked by an off-screen Chan to do imitations of various movie stars.
"Chan simply let me sit there during what were supposedly casting sessions," says Tsui. "We chatted for several days and, when I began to suspect it was a scam after all, he told me that the shooting was done. I then realised he was going to edit the footage into the commercial."
Tsui says he was approached by various record companies at the time but, due to his absolute trust in Fruit Chan, signed with his recommendation to Amy Chin Siu-wai, who has remained his manager ever since.
Chan was also the director of Tsui's first film: the then young man was given a cameo role as the elder brother of the titular role of Little Cheung (2000). "It was a tiny part, but Chan said he wanted to be my first director," Tsui says. "I still remember I had to go to school the next day. It was an overnight shoot, and we shot a few scenes."
His first taste of glamour arrived on his 18th birthday when he attended the Cannes Film Festival as a cast member of the low-budget indie feature Glass Tears (2001). It was another coincidence that he got the part. "The director [Carol Lai Miu-suet] wanted someone who looked totally spaced out. I had a crazy night out before my casting session, so I looked extremely drowsy."
Tsui then turns contemplative. "There was one image that stayed with me from that experience: when I saw, on the big screen, that Jack Nicholson was walking the red carpet. It's so cool that he, being a big star, could take the red carpet; we walked on the blue carpet that time. I was like, 'Whoa, so that's the film industry, and I'm a part of it'."
Tsui's first substantial role came with Pang Ho-cheung's AV (2005), and his character - a film student who stumbles into the porn industry - was one that was based on a real person actually present on the set. "I sat side-by-side with this guy while shooting the making-of video. As I was imitating that person, I suddenly had the urge to become a real actor.
"In the past, in films such as The Mummy, Aged 19 (2002), I was just playing myself and was clueless about what was going on. I just did or said whatever [the director] Wilson Yip Wai-shun told me to do. It was AV, in which I played a director, that made me think about what film really is."
Based on a popular two-part novel that was originally published in an internet forum, The Midnight After represents a reunion of sorts for Tsui and many of his former colleagues, starting with director Fruit Chan, with whom he had only collaborated on cameo parts or commercials.
Other familiar faces include his Shine bandmate Wong Yau-nam, his Little Cheung sibling Yiu Yuet-ming, and Kara Wai Ying-hung, his co-star in the acclaimed art house drama At the End of Daybreak (2009).
Revolving around a group of minibus passengers who inexplicably become lost in time, the sci-fi mystery presents a small challenge for Tsui as he's required to play a composite of two characters from the original story.
The role of a scientifically minded detective with a latent, violent persona also demands the actor, who turns 31 next month, to be someone who is much more mature than his boyish looks would suggest.
"I grew a beard to look more mature and credible in The Midnight After," he says. Reflecting on his boyish looks, he acknowledges that, "My appearance does give me a greater range for film work. For example, I can easily slip into a comedy [for young people], like Kick Ass Girls (2013)."
Tsui admits that he's not big on smiling ("That's my image - I can't help it"), and his stone face could have played a major part in his repeated casting in pensive roles. The latest of these came with Enthralled, the directorial debut of sarcastic columnist Chip Tsao.
In it, Tsui plays a Chinese literature lecturer who must cope with depression while taking care of his dying mother, and searching for his long-lost father. Tsao's story becomes bogged down in his efforts to get the myriad political metaphors across, and it sometimes threatens to become a farce. But Tsui, who gave himself a pale complexion for the role, comes out unscathed as a credible actor.
In an oddly ironic way, his character's confused prospect may be said to partly mirror Tsui's own.
"I started out as a pop idol but, several years in, I suddenly felt like I couldn't go on," he says. "I started to have problems because I was really lost, and I told my manager that I wanted to stop singing and start acting in movies.
"For a time I might be able to make two or three movies a year, but the feeling was that my career was stagnating. I felt lost and the world was ending. I almost decided to quit the industry. That's why I spent those years trying other things, like directing shorts, starting a business, and writing books. I have found my soul in the process. I've rediscovered myself bit by bit," he says.
While he has played both major parts in small films - Adam Wong Sau-ping's Magic Boy (2007), Ho Yuhang's At the End of Daybreak - and small parts in major films, such as Patrick Tam Ka-ming's After This Our Exile (2007) and Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (2011), Tsui believes that his acting career is only starting in earnest with his two latest leading roles.
"I feel like everything that came before was just the training stage," says Tsui. "I'm now waiting for the right parts and the right opportunities."
The Midnight After and Enthralled both open on April 10