Asian cinema: Hong Kong film
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Chow Yun-fat, pictured at an interview with the Post in 2003, talks about being a romantic at heart and how he copes with fame. Photo: SCMP

Hong Kong film star Chow Yun-fat on his dislike of violence, favourite actors, John Woo films, and why his wife is ‘amazing’

  • We look at the career of Chow Yun-fat, Hong Kong’s biggest film star, through his many interviews with the South China Morning Post over the years
  • He recalls going ‘three or four days without sleep’ working on TVB shows, his favourite actors, why he doesn’t like violence and his hopes for Hollywood success

As Hong Kong’s biggest film star, Chow Yun-fat has often featured in the Post.

In his first interview in 1982, his Hakka and Lamma Island roots were emphasised. Throughout the years, Post journalists have commented on his affable and down-to-earth nature.

Chow’s films, of which there are many, have not always received similar praise, although his own performances have usually been commended.

Here we take a look at Chow’s career through his interviews with the Post over the years.

Chow on his success at TVB, in an interview with the Post in 1982:

“In the entertainment business, when you get to the top, you know you may only be there for a short time. You have to catch the time before a new star takes your place or the audiences tire of your face.

The Shaw Brothers directors whose films ran the gamut from wuxia to erotica

“TV’s exciting, but it’s hard. Sometimes we’ll go three or four days without sleep, filming or recording all the time to keep up the production schedule.

“I’ve got a flat across the road from the TV studios. The working hours are so long an actor has to live close to the station. At times night filming or shooting ends at midnight. You just get time to grab a couple of hours’ sleep.”

On his performance in Johnnie To Kei-fung’s comedy The Eighth Happiness, in 1989:

“The most difficult thing is comedies. It is hard to make people laugh – I like Michael Hui Koon-man because he does it so successfully. I also like love stories – I’m a romantic at heart.
Chow (right), standing next to actress Josephine Siu, speaks at the 1990 Hong Kong Film Awards presentation ceremony after being named best actor for his part in All About Ah-Long. Photo: SCMP

“When I am in a location, I like to do different characters with different emotions. It’s a habit I developed during television, when I had to do 20 to 30 productions. A good actor has to be very analytical, has to have a good memory, remember what to do in any different location.”

On his favourite actors:

“My favourite actor is Robert DeNiro, he can interpret the parts and characters so well and so humanly. I like Robert Duvall – very down to earth, not extravagant – and Dustin Hoffman, he looks so unattractive, such a shorty, but on the screen, he is so impressive with his feeling for a part.

“Also, William Hurt. His gestures, eyes and dialogue are very full – it’s very juicy the way he plays a role. I always watch and learn from them, study their form, copy from others’ acting. Everyone is my teacher. When I can’t learn from overseas, I watch the old black-and-white local productions.”

Chow in a still from The Killer (1989).

On violence while shooting the church scene for John Woo’s The Killer, in 1989:

“In my heart, I don’t like violence at all. But that is what the audience like. My character has changed all the time, as I have made films. I used to be like the people I played – naughty, mischievous and nosy – but now I am more peaceful, more serious. I have mellowed in the past 10 years.”

On Mabel Cheung Yuen-ting’s An Autumn’s Tale, in 1990:

“I enjoy roles which are realistic and tangible to the public – say, Suen Tau Chak in An Autumn’s Tale. I don’t like violence; I don’t want to beat up people, nor be beaten up.”

Chow (centre) with Cherie Chung in a still from An Autumn’s Tale (1987).

On the Hong Kong film industry, in 1990:

“There is a general lack of faith and sense of direction in the industry. Few filmmakers are keen on upgrading the quality of local films. Making money is so important to them that they will forsake quality for quantity. It is a disheartening phenomenon.

“From black-and-white Cantonese features starring Ng Cho-fan to the full-colour films of Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee and even today’s Jackie Chan, we haven’t processed our heritage in a way to offer a good foundation for the next generation.”

On his career, in 1992:

“I’m not the kind of drifter who wants to take everything into my own hands. That’s why I stayed in TVB for about 10 years and later signed with the Golden Princess film company.

Chow, pictured during the shooting of Full Contact, in 1992. Photo: SCMP

“There is good shelter under a big tree. Without a company, you might have difficulty getting the last instalment of your payment from some filmmakers. I’d rather let my boss handle the red tape, so I can concentrate on acting.”

On his wife Jasmine, in 1993:

“She’s my everything. She does my contracts, meetings, the finances and advises me. It is good for me.

“Before, I handled all my own accounts, the office – everything. I even paid the water and electricity bills. Now she takes care of everything. She is my secretary, my wife, my washing machine, my maid. Sometimes even my teacher.

Chow (right) and his wife, Jasmine Tan Hui-lian, pictured in 1988. Photo: SCMP

“She is quite a woman. It is amazing. On top of handling everything, she’s also a housewife.”

On working in Hong Kong, in 1993:

“My career in Hong Kong is not too important. I am not happy with the Hong Kong market. Before I was like an acting machine. I can’t believe it. I’ve made more than 900 episodes for the television stations. That’s a lot.

“If I was Bill Cosby in Hong Kong, I would be rich. But when the TV station sells the series to China or overseas, I don’t see a dime. We don’t get any royalties or anything.”

On coping with fame, in 1998:

“It’s a very simple life. We wake up, read the papers and go to the market in Kowloon City to buy food. Then I will potter around the house and see what needs to be fixed … water the plants, trim the trees and then watch a little television.

Chow at a press conference for Anna and The King in 1999. Photo: SCMP

“Movie star is just a term. It does not mean you have a higher status if you are a movie star, and lower if you are an actor. Movie star or actor … you’re still just a hired worker.

“I’ve had it all and there were times when I lost it all. I have reached high points and I have hit rock bottom at different times in my life.”

On the success of Anna and the King, in 1999:

“Finally, I don’t need to hold a gun to make a living. Holding a sword is OK, it’s different; it’s more debonair. I’m very happy and it feels very comfortable. I’ve been dying for it to happen for a long, long time.

“I had not been an action hero at all until 1986, when I met John Woo and did A Better Tomorrow. After that movie nobody would hire me in any dramatic roles, they always wanted me to be holding two guns as the action hero, again and again and again.”
Chow (left) and Jodie Foster in a still from Anna and the King (1999).

On his hopes for Hollywood success, in 2000:

“When I was in college, I saw a lot of Hollywood films. I’m dying to be one of the biggest heroes of the big screen – I want to be John Wayne and Steve McQueen. I want to entertain.

“And I hope being Asian doesn’t matter. If you love a movie and you’re drawn to the movie, you don’t care what colour the leading man is – you just enjoy the character he’s playing.

“I have this ability to do something more than hold guns and fight. But American audiences see my John Woo movies and think, ‘That’s all he can do.’ All action. All explosions. Those are not my passions. I like to explore a larger world on screen.”

Chow (left) and Johnny Depp in a still from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007).

On his role in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, in 2007:

“That role does have a lot of room to manoeuvre, you know. I haven’t done a romp like that and it’s got all the elements that would make it a commercial success.”

In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved industry.

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