Like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat is best known in the west for a few of terrible films such as Bullet Proof Monk and The Replacement Killers. Unlike Jackie Chan, he rarely graces our shores to show the other side to his character. This means many Westerners will simply see him as an irrelevant footnote to their cinematic viewing. Few know the man who once said: “Working in front of the camera keeps me alive. I couldn't care less about actors' trailers and food on sets and stuff like that - I just want to act".
It may be a shock for Western audiences to find that Chow Yun-Fat is one of the most popular actors working in film today. He is one of the most respected actors in the whole Asian territory and has millions of fans who worship him like a deity.
He was always a popular actor in Hong Kong, starting out playing non-demanding heart-throb roles in various TV programmes and films. But after his excellent 1983 performance in gangster movie, Shang ha tan xu ji his star began to rise dramatically.
Only a couple of years later in 1985 he won two best actor awards for his role in Dang doi lai ming (Hong Kong 1941 in the UK). The film follows the story of three friends as they try to escape Hong Kong during the Japanese takeover. It was with this role that Yun-Fat came to the attention of the then up and coming director John Woo. Woo, who until this point had been making films prolifically in a number of genre’s cast him in the role of Mark in A Better Tomorrow in 1986. The movie would go on to become one of the most highly acclaimed pictures in Hong Kong cinema history and be a massive commercial success.
After the success of the movie John Woo decided to focus on the hard edged gangster thrillers and ‘Heroic bloodshed’ movies with which he would gain his reputation. The role catapulted Chow Yun-Fat to super stardom and marked him out as a style icon for any young male. The sales of the thick woollen coat his character wore in the film shot through the roof (remarkable considering Hong Kong’s humid climate). The East finally had another star the size of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan to follow.
From here on, the two formed a legendary partnership. More commercial success followed for the pair with A Better Tomorrow 2 in 1987, but it was 1989 film The Killer that began to get them world wide attention. For Woo it meant a phone call from Hollywood and an invitation to the US. For Yun-Fat it created a character that would go on to influence many western movies.
The figure of the tragic assassin Jeffrey in his white suit is an image that almost any eastern movie fan will know. The obvious reference in western cinema comes in Quentin Tarantino film Jackie Brown. Here Samuel L Jackson’s character Ordell tells Louis that every person wants the gun the killer used, even though it’s unreliable and jams. He also mentions them all wanting to buy “two guns” which refers to the double pistol touting characters that Yun-Fat plays.
Ironically, though the film helped both Woo and his acting muse gain cult status in the US, it didn’t do particularly well in China. This was due to a number of references to the Tiananmen Square massacre. The film also ran into other problems with the studio not wanting the film to be made. Producer Tsui Hark hated it and wanted it completely re-cut and told from the point of view of the police officer. Luckily due to a tight release schedule nothing was changed.
John Woo may have got his invitation to Hollywood, but before leaving he made two more films with Yun-Fat. The first was Once a Thief in 1991, which turned out to be a decent action packed caper movie. The second film was 1992 bullet ballet Hard Boiled. This would be the last time the two worked together in the film industry and they made sure everything ended with a bang. Hard Boiled would go on to be one of the most important and influential movies in Asian cinema history and was responsible for breaking eastern cinema in the West.
The film, clocking in at a body count of three-hundred and seven, puts Chow in the role of iconic police inspector ‘Tequila’. It is amazing the film holds together so well, as it was besieged with script, time and money problems. It is rumoured that the entire script was re-written only a week before shooting began with the plot being changed dramatically.
Both Yun-Fat and co-star Tony Leung almost didn’t make it through the film in one piece either. Leung was hit in the eye by flying glass during one of the shoot out scenes (you can see him cover his face if you look closely) and Yun-Fat was almost blown up. Woo apparently didn’t think the explosions were good enough so insisted on having the trigger himself. He pressed the button too soon and when he went to apologise found that the back of Yun-Fat’s hair and coat were singed.
Luckily for us the film did get finished and turned out to be one of the greatest action movies of all time. Its influence can be seen in The Matrix where many of the shootouts and the action style is a watered down version of its Hong Kong cousin. With their legacy complete the two parted company. John Woo never came close to emulating the success he had in Hong Kong in Hollywood. Some films such as Face Off and Broken Arrow were fairly profitable but the critics never took to him well. Two of his most high profile films, Paycheck and Mission Impossible 2 are universally derided.
Chow Yun-Fat, now having reached almost God like status, stayed in the East for a few more years before finally making his Hollywood debut in 1998’s The Replacement Killers. Much like Woo he found critical success hard to come by, partly due to him being continually miscast in light weight action roles where he seemed disinterested. He broke the stereotype with his touching role in Anna and the King (1999) and this seemed to restore his love for the screen.
He returned to the East and followed his more serious role with an astounding performance in the amazing (and Oscar winning) Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in 2000. Finally Yun-Fat had made it onto western cinema screens in a role that really fitted him. The film was a massive critical and commercial success and started a second wave of Western love for Eastern cinema.
It went on not only to influence western action cinema for years to come, but also led to a whole new genre breaking through in the East. Suddenly historical fantasy folklore tales were springing up everywhere such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Fearless. All of which gained western cinema releases due to Crouching Tiger’s success.
Audiences may have known the film but few people still really knew who he was. He decided to take another crack at the Hollywood movie in 2003, but again ended up terribly miscast in goofy comedy Bullet Proof Monk. It seemed Yun-Fat was never going to get a role he deserved. Once more he returned to the East to take up more serious roles. Curse of the Golden Flowers in 2006 brought him back to the West but unfortunately coincided with a down turn in interest in Eastern cinema. The film received a tepid reception as the popularity of the historical fantasy epic passed.
All was not lost however. 2007 would see a massive revival in Yun-Fat’s career. Not only did he get the chance to work with John Woo again on the computer game Strangle Hold (a sort of follow up to Hard Boiled). He also got the call to play Captain Sao Feng in the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The film went on to be the highest grossing picture of all time and the character of Sao Feng lit up the screen. For a short period everyone wanted to know about him, and he loved it.
Yun-Fat once said of Western audiences that they “think I am a stereotyped action star, or that I always play hitmen or killers.” That may still be true to some extent but at least now people are taking an interest in his other work. He went on to say, “In Hong Kong, I did a lot of comedy, many dramatic films, and most of all, romantic roles, lots of love stories. I was like a romance novel hero.” It is great that people are finally beginning to realise this.