Is there a more fitting person to unveil our 100 Greatest Hong Kong Films special feature than Chow Yun-fat? We think not. The ever personable superstar shares his views on our movie list – and the current state of Hong Kong cinema. Interview by Edmund Lee.
It’s one of life’s beautiful ironies that Chow Yun-fat – the Lamma native who reached the zenith of Chinese-language filmmaking with such timeless classics as A Better Tomorrow (1986), An Autumn’s Tale (1987) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – would become a superstar by not acting anything like one. In person, the 56-year-old actor assumes the air of a friendly everyman who just so happens to be Hong Kong cinema’s biggest name; in public, he has shunned the limelight and restricted his public appearances to a controlled minimum; but when he does show up, you’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s the emperor who has entered the room.
For instance, at his last movie premiere in Hong Kong (for the star-studded Chinese epic Beginning of the Great Revival), the press room had noticeably gone a notch quieter when Chow – and not any of the other big-name actors – arrived. Speaking exclusively to Time Out on March 2, Chow is still bemused when I tell him the air seemed to have temporarily stood still on that royal entrance. “I feel that [the journalists] were behaving that way because I seldom attend those functions,” he says with modesty. “I’m actually not the type of person [who puts on an air of superiority], you know what I mean? It’s just that if I tried to act like we’re the best of friends then… it might be a bit scary for you.” He’s giggling now. “On other occasions, like when people ask me for a photo on the street, I’ll just hold the iPhone and take it with them.”
It’s in the same jovial spirit that I chat with Chow about our special feature, his illustrious career and where Hong Kong cinema is heading...
In our list of the 100 Greatest Hong Kong Films, you star in seven of them –
Tell me about them!
Make a guess.
You want me to guess? Um, God of Gamblers (1989), An Autumn’s Tale (1987), City on Fire (1987), A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989)… what are the last two?
Hard Boiled (1992) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
Oh yes, yes. Hard Boiled is the one by… John Woo – that’s right. So Prison on Fire (1987) is not included? [Laughs]
The problem is you’ve made too many good films! Which of the movies mentioned do you think will rank the highest?
It’s probably A Better Tomorrow.
Indeed, most of the local industry people I talked to mentioned it, while the likes of Hard Boiled and The Killer seem to be enjoying greater acclaims overseas. Do you have a theory on this?
If we consider the characterisation, the explosiveness and the entertainment value, then of course Mark Gor [in A Better Tomorrow] is great fun. The character struck a chord with the local viewers because it is very identifiable to them: Mark Gor is both faithful and honourable. As for my favourite – or what I consider to be the best – from the several John Woo movies, I’d pick The Killer. It’s cool and stylish, and it resembles foreign movies in its composition. It’s unique in that it’s transcended the limits of Hong Kong films, having a little bit of the flavours of French films and Hollywood films.
It has a romanticised ambience.
Exactly, exactly. A Better Tomorrow is much more ‘hard-selling’ and straightforward [by comparison]. As for Hard Boiled, perhaps the foreign audience likes the Hong Kong style exemplified by its bird-cage-breaking opening shootout at a [traditional Chinese] teahouse; they like to watch something that is culturally flavoured. Maybe that’s why.
When you look back at those movies, are you surprised that so many of them have stood the test of time and become classics?
I haven’t really thought about it, not really.
But did you feel like you were doing something special back then?
Not really. From my perspective as an actor, I tried to give my best performance to achieve what’s required of each of my roles – and to make the film better. That’s the basics to making a living in the world: you have to provide a service of [certain quality] – right? I wouldn’t consider whether a film may turn into a classic someday; that’s not what I pay attention to. I won’t pay attention to the awards, either. Maybe because I’m from the older generation of actors, [chuckles] I think I should help the boss make a profit. If a boss can make a living, he’ll be able to continue hiring me. [Laughs]
That’s why I give my 200 percent to play the characters and this is still my attitude up to these days. At the end it’s a business; we’re not making art films, and your salary isn’t cheap. It’s not about your personal interest – unless you’re taking less to work on a project you like. For example, I gave a discount to take part in The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006), because I like the character, I like [director] Ann Hui and I like the film on the whole. That was fun. You can try to do something different in it, but that’s not a commercial film – it’s an arthouse film. Another example: you see Andy Lau is investing in [Hui’s latest film] A Simple Life? That’s very risky too. [Chuckles] Isn’t it?
Have you seen the film yet?
I haven’t, but I will.
It’s quite a good film actually.
Yeah? I [always] watch Ann’s films.
I’d like to ask you something about your formative years. What are the earliest movies that you remember seeing?
When I was living on Lamma Island as a kid, I was mostly watching Cantonese opera. [Laughs] I mean the bamboo theatre for the Tin Hau Festival… when you didn’t have electric lamps and were only using oil lamps in the tents… when you see things light up in that darkness… it’s like being in a dream. And you know how detached the music and lyrics of Cantonese opera could make you feel, how their costumes and makeup [could make you feel]… so I felt ‘wow, that was really amazing!’ [Chuckles] When you were used to the very dark environment and suddenly came across something like that, it was really memorable.
So when was your first ‘experience’ with cinema?
After I moved out from Lamma and began living on Portland Street, I often secretly went to the late afternoon screenings. They were really cheap – about 20 cents [for a ticket]. The cinemas at the time also offered [discounted] tickets to movies that had been shown for over a month. My favourite was definitely 633 Squadron (1964). The previously released movies we watched then were all Hollywood blockbusters; we didn’t have money to watch on the first run. I watched a lot of vampire movies, and I watched The Great Escape (1963), The Longest Day (1962), Gone with the Wind (1939) and a lot of very impressive Hollywood movies. I didn’t know how to [properly] appreciate them when I was young, but when I saw those major Hollywood productions it was still a pretty amazing experience.
And did you ever dream of being up on the silver screen yourself?
No! [Laughs] I was merely looking at the colourful world as a country bumpkin. Watching those movies was like living in dreams.
Was there any Hong Kong movie star from that period who left a deep impression on you?
Before we moved out [from Lamma], we didn’t have many chances to see the [Hong Kong] black-and-white movies, and they wouldn’t bring those films to screen on Lamma. So I missed that period [of Hong Kong cinema]. I would occasionally catch up after black-and-white television broadcasts began, but… the most popular [movie star] then was Connie Chan. “Here comes Connie Chan!” [Laughs] And I very seldom watched those Yam-Pak [Cantonese opera] films. It’s in the 1970s, when I was enrolled in the [TVB] actor-trainee programme, that I started to catch up with the movies.
The representative directors today, such as John Woo, Tsui Hark and Johnnie To, were deeply influenced by the 1960s and 70s films by the likes of King Hu and Chang Cheh. Did you watch those early films?
Yes, yes, yes. You know, Shaw Brothers Studio was associated with the trainee programme. We didn’t have our lessons in Shaw Brothers but we did go and watch their movies. I really liked to watch [director] Chor Yuen’s Killer Clans (1976) and Chang Cheh’s Blood Brothers (1973). We were working as extras then, so we had time to go out [and watch movies]. But since the early 1980s, when I began to have the chances to play leading roles, there’d been more than a dozen years in which I didn’t see any movies. [Laughs] I was working day and night and had absolutely no time to watch movies. Even in the heyday of Hong Kong cinema in the 80s, the only chance I got to watch movies were the occasional midnight screenings that the bosses asked me to go to – otherwise I’d be working. [Laughs]
That sounds crazy.
When my television series were at their most popular I also had no chance to watch them, because we would still be filming when [the
earlier episodes] were broadcast. I just heard about [my works] from other people, you know what I mean? It took a long time to shoot then –
for both TV and film. Dude, when we shot Hard Boiled we worked on well over 100 sets. [Laughs] It was a major production!
This reminds me of [cinematographer] Christopher Doyle’s reply when I asked him to name his favourite Hong Kong films a few days ago. He said he couldn’t name any because he ‘makes films to make films, not to watch films’.
That’s very true.
I guess this is a very common statement for people working in the industry.
It is, it is. And when you happen to have made something that’s turned out to be surprisingly successful, all you can say is ‘oh’. It’s just one word: ‘oh.’ [Laughs] You have no idea how people in the public are seeing you; you just keep your head down and work like there’s no tomorrow.
Many Hong Kong audiences feel that the best time – the ‘Golden Age’, so to speak – is already in the past. Do you agree with that?
I totally agree. Because the production costs were lower in the past, and the salaries are relatively expensive nowadays. In a city in which property costs are so high… now, you can go back a little bit and look at the death of Japanese cinema, which was entirely down to the high property costs. Studios such as Toei Company have all utilised their lands in the property market and not troubled themselves to make movies, no? [Laughs] You know how much we used to like Japanese movies? That has all changed since their economy took flight in the 1980s. Even an iconic figure like Akira Kurosawa had to rely on Steven Spielberg’s funding [to make the film Dreams (1990)]; and he’s a national treasure, wasn’t he? So now, unless the four major property developers [in Hong Kong] decide to support our cinema… [Laughs]. It’s very expensive now – from the actors to everything else. Our population also only has seven million people, so our box office… what can we do about it?
We’d just build more houses.
That’s the thing! What can we do? We can of course make more films like Gallants [2010, the low-budget best picture winner at the 2011 Hong Kong Film Awards]. But can we gather 100 industry people to unite and give low-budget movies a chance together?
How about the trend of Hong Kong-Mainland co-productions in recent years? Do you think it’s a good thing for our industry?
It’s not up to us. Things change along with the times; there will always be a culture of sorts in any given period of time [in history]. For example, if they had torn down the Sunbeam Theatre, would there still be Cantonese opera? There would still be some. [Laughs] You’d see them at Ko Shan Theatre or Tsuen Wan – the smaller venues. You can’t stop the change of times. It’s very difficult. And you can also see that there’s a shortage of actors today. Many would think: if it takes so much time [to become an actor], why don’t I be a singer instead? How long would it take to turn someone into a movie star? It’s very difficult now.
Being a Cantopop singer has become one of the most natural paths to becoming a movie actor nowadays…
They don’t start out as actors any more.
They don’t, because it’s a tough road. It’s like ‘I’d rather enrol in the Miss Hong Kong pageant than the actor-trainee programme’. [Laughs] It’s too difficult to get ahead.
Now that you’re one of the biggest movie stars in Chinese language cinema…
I’m just an actor! I’m not a star.
Okay, but seriously, have you been taken aback by your achievement?
Not really. I just treat it as a job. It’s pointless even if people put a crown on my head. [Laughs] I mean, I have my own way of life, and I’m still taking the MTR and buses. My life wouldn’t change if you give me a boat or an airplane. That I have an interest in something doesn’t mean that I have to milk it for all it’s worth; the fun I have when I work on a set with all the [cast and crew] is greater than what comes to me afterwards.
Throughout your film career, what question have you been asked the most?
‘How did I create a certain character?’ But it’s impossible to explain [to those who’re asking], because as long as they haven’t spent the long hours on the set with me, they won’t understand what filmmaking is all about. For example: you’re interviewing me now, and I’m also full of questions about how you’re going to write this up afterwards. After you’ve listened to and digested [what I said], you’d come up with something – written words, specifically – that are slightly altered according to your own emotions and knowledge. When I read your interview another day and think back to our conversation today, I’d also have a [new understanding]. Same for filmmaking: we hear the story from the film director and we perform on the scene after discussing it, but you can’t simply envision the end results. If I showed you the script of A Better Tomorrow, you wouldn’t have guessed how it’d turn out to be like; and when I read your story later on, I’d also think: “Oh, Edmund, you’re writing it like this?” [Laughs] You know what I mean?
Yes, I think so.
You have your room for creativity, just as I have my room for creativity. The process is where we meet and interact.
Do you have a habit of re-watching your own movies?
That very rarely happens. I watched the [pre-release] midnight screening [and that’s it]. I have a habit: I don’t watch the playback on the set, and this has been the case ever since my television days. I only watched my films once when I got the chance to see them on the big screen. Why do I do that? Because it should be the director who tells me what to do, and it’s not about what I think I should do after watching the playback.
So if you could show your family just one of your films, which would you choose?
I think An Autumn’s Tale is good. [Laughs] I really like how it provides the fantasy that there may be a table for two [for the protagonists] at the
end. There’s a bit of hope. It’s also precious for two people from different cultural backgrounds to come together eventually. I like watching dramas a lot; for action films I like watching the Die Hard movies, the Rambo movies and the Indiana Jones movies, but I like watching dramas more than action films.
But you’re most famous for your action films!
But then, from start to finish, I’ve always been trained to be an actor since my actor-trainee programme! People just pushed me into being an action star! [Laughs] Dude, it’s such an irony. I never learned to fight or anything, you know what I mean? I’ve never been a martial arts actor.
Is that why you chose to add a little extra depth into your action roles? I saw that you’re often chewing on a toothpick...
It’s only Mark Gor [in A Better Tomorrow].
Not only him but…
I think there’s only Mark Gor – who else?
You’re doing that in Hard Boiled too.
So… it’s only the John Woo series. [Laughs]
Finally, can you tell Time Out your top five favourite Hong Kong films?
I like Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China (1991) – I like it very much. And I like Tsui’s Shanghai Blues (1984) and The Butterfly Murders (1979), Ann Hui’s The Spooky Bunch (1980) and Boat People (1982), Yim Ho’s Homecoming (1984), and I like Stephen Chow’s movies. [Laughs] They are hilarious. Actually, I love watching comedies the most.
Really? You should do more of them.
I think comedies are enjoyable to both the audience and me. It’s a lot of fun on the set: even if you can resist laughing, the crew members on the side are already laughing [during the filming]. Comedies are hard to do, but if you can do it, it’s a lot of fun.
Is there any type of character that you still really want to portray on film?
Yes, there are many. For actors, our roles change as our age increases. There’s no turning back at some point. There must be characters that you’ll find the chance to play at different ages. Like Jane Fonda’s father [Henry Fonda] and his film On Golden Pond : you will have the chance to play that kind of [elderly] character one day; that’s just the way it is. From your acting skills to your life experience to your body, it’s all heading in that direction. You’ll see me do that not very long from now. [Laughs]
Lastly, how do you want to be remembered decades from now?
It’s good enough if the audiences like the movies and like the characters. I’m only a performer. As long as they enjoy watching me, I’ve done my job and that’s fine with me already. The main issue is: as a performer who’s collecting a pay cheque, I’m satisfied as long as the box office is decent and the boss isn’t losing money. If the audiences like [my performance], of course I’m happy; but even if they don’t, there’s not much I can do for them either – dude, I’m just making a living! [Laughs]
Where will Chow Yun-fat’s movies – and many others – rank on our list of 100 Greatest Hong Kong Films? Follow this link to find out…