Meet the French Chinese star of hit comedy about weddings, Frédéric Chau
"In France, there are only three Asian actors," says Frédéric Chau of his rising stature as he greeted the audience at the Hong Kong French Film Festival screening of Serial (Bad) Weddings last month. "And two of them don't speak French."
The 37-year-old is just kidding, although there's no denying that Chau has become one of the most recognisable Asian faces in France since the family comedy became 2014's biggest domestic hit in the country. "One out of six people in France has watched this movie," the actor says.
Directed by Philippe de Chauveron, who co-wrote the script with Guy Laurent, Serial (Bad) Weddings revolves around a French Catholic family whose white parents are still grappling with the fact that three of their four daughters have married men outside their ethnic group, including the Chinese son-in-law played by Chau. When their youngest daughter brings home a black fiancé, all hell breaks loose.
"When Philippe finished the script, he decided to meet all the actors of different origins," Chau says of the director's preparations. "He wanted to listen to people's opinions about their own [ethnic] communities - Arabic, African, Jewish and Chinese - because he didn't want to write something wrong about another community. He didn't want to hurt them."
While the film has attracted more than 12 million admissions at home, its attempt to elicit laughter from racial stereotypes hasn't been met with the same enthusiasm abroad. Surprisingly for a box office hit, Serial (Bad) Weddings has failed to secure a commercial release in the US and Britain. Foreign distributors have been deterred by the political incorrectness in the multicultural movie, which Chau attributes to the difference in social environments in France and elsewhere. "France is the champion of the world in mixed weddings," he says.
"This movie touches on five communities and three generations. It's happened to [many] families that their children bring a boyfriend or girlfriend from another origin [home] for dinner. French people recognise themselves in this kind of situation. I think this is why the movie works [so well]," says Chau, adding that his family is happy with his French girlfriend.
Born in Vietnam after his ethnic Chinese parents fled there from Cambodia in 1975 during its civil war, he was taken to Paris as a six-month-old baby and has been living there since. After studying to be an engineer, Chau worked as a flight attendant for his first job, before deciding at age 26 to study theatre.
He began as a stand-up comic, working for four years with actor-comedian Jamel Debbouze. Since 2008, Chau has appeared in TV series and movies, including small parts in five Luc Besson films. "It's the first time I did my two jobs at the same time," he jokes about his flight attendant character in this year's Lucy, opposite Scarlett Johansson.
Still, it wasn't until the Paris premiere of Serial (Bad) Weddings that Chau brought his parents to the cinema for the first time in their lives, an emotional occasion that brought tears to his mother when she sat among the 800-member audience. Upper middle class back in Cambodia, his parents had found it tough going in France. Although Chau's father speaks seven Asian languages, and his mother five, both have had to "work very hard jobs because they didn't speak French".
As a tribute to his parents, Chau is writing a book about their lives, with the hope of one day developing it into a movie. While that might have seemed a distant prospect a year ago, Serial (Bad) Weddings has made it a concrete possibility.
Opportunities that have recently opened to Chau include the chance to develop his own movie: he will take the lead role in Made in China, a film he wrote himself. "It is the first comedy that talks about Chinese people living in France," he says. "The question is: Do you have to choose [between] Asian culture [and] French culture?"
Having lived through the dilemma, Chau knows the answer. "It's like when someone asks if you prefer your father or your mother - it's a stupid question. I don't have to choose, I just want to live with both. I love my Chinese culture and I love my French culture."
Serial (Bad) Weddings opens on January 1