Hong Kong actor Aaron Kwok honoured at New York Asian Film Festival

The time seemed right to put a spotlight on Kwok as an actor, says festival co-founder Goran Topalovic. Ringo Lam also honoured as his 1987 classic City on Fire is screened

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 July, 2015, 4:39pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 July, 2015, 8:07pm

At awards presentations, most actors like to say their piece and quickly leave the stage - but not Aaron Kwok Fu-shing. The actor-singer was enjoying himself so much at the recent New York Asian Film Festival - where he received the Star Asia award - he didn't want to step down. Kwok even restarted his address to the audience just as the opening film, Philip Yung's Port of Call, was about to start.

The reason for his enthusiasm? The festival, which ran from June 26 to July 11 at the Lincoln Centre, was honouring Kwok for his contribution to acting rather than his celebrity status.

An introduction by festival co-founder Grady Hendrix noted how his acting had taken a more serious turn over the past decade, and Kwok responded by talking about recent roles he'd taken on to stretch his abilities, including his leading role in The Money King: The Legend Begins (2014). Before he finally left the stage, Kwok promised the audience that he would try to bring even more interesting characters to the screen in future.

"The award recognises Kwok's progress and evolution as an actor," festival co-founder Goran Topalovic says over a coffee in the Lincoln Centre's Indie Cafe.

"Kwok has been part of the Asian pop cultural scene for many years, but his acting abilities have been overlooked. His skills have matured in recent years, and the time seemed right to put a spotlight on him as an actor. I was blown away by his performance in Port of Call; he was so deep inside his character that I forgot that he was Aaron Kwok, the pop star. It's not easy to shed a pop star image and have audiences take you seriously, but that's what he's done. When I think of Kwok now, I think of him as an actor, not as one of the Four Heavenly Kings."

Topalovic thinks Kwok's work deserves more respect in the United States, where his popularity is limited to hardcore Hong Kong cinema enthusiasts and Canto-pop fans. "This was a chance to make his progress clear to his fans in the US, and also introduce him to a more mainstream audience," he says. "We are curious to see where he is going to take his career next."

The New York Asian Film Festival, which turned 14 this year, is different to most film festivals, as it's a showcase for commercial and genre films, not art-house fare.

When I think of Kwok now, I think of him as an actor, not as one of the Four Heavenly Kings
Goran Topalovic

Founded by a group of Hong Kong film fans who go by the collective name of Subway Cinema, the festival was born from a desire to see  on the big screen the films they loved watching on video. The festival has grown to include films from all over the region, with a focus on movies from Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan.

The event has risen in stature over the years, and now takes place mainly in the prestigious Lincoln Centre's Walter Reade Theatre.

The mission of the festival has always been clear-cut, says Topalovic: "It's to introduce great cinema from East Asia - great directors and actors that people in the US should be more aware of." Asian film fans, such as Sophia Wong Boccio, who flew in from Chicago to attend, are appreciative of Topalovic's efforts.

Wong Boccio, who is launching her own festival called Asian Pop-Up Cinema in Chicago in September, says it allows her to see Asian films on the big screen: "Over 90 per cent of the films they show won't get a theatrical release here in the US," she notes.

This year's edition paid homage to the festival's roots in Hong Kong cinema by presenting a lifetime achievement award to legendary director Ringo Lam Ling-tung.

"Ringo was one of the directors who introduced us all at Subway Cinema to Hong Kong films," says Topalovic. "The themes of his works go deep into Hong Kong society - they talk about what it really means to live in Hong Kong."

A screening of Lam's classic City on Fire (1987) proved a nostalgic experience for viewers from Hong Kong and the US alike. "Seeing City on Fire was the most precious moment for me at the festival, as I was able to see iconic stars like Chow Yun-fat on the big screen again," says Wong Boccio.

"Although we mainly focus on new films, it's part of our mission to show these classic films to a younger generation who may not be aware of them," adds Topalovic. "A lot of these movies are vital to cinema, and we don't want them to be forgotten."