The Godfather, Chinese-style

New gangster movie revives memories of a corrupt 1930s Shanghai

The Godfather, Chinese-style

Not everyone can pull off a red velvet tux: Chow Yun-fat

Cary Grant only trusted Savile Row tailors to dress him off-screen. But China’s answer to the Hollywood legend prefers a Germanic tailor. Chow Yun-fat, who has been compared to the English actor for his debonair demeanour, has been tapped by Hugo Boss as its first Asian brand ambassador. Chow’s face is now adorning ad campaigns in Hong Kong and China targeting China’s sharply-dressed, middle-aged shoppers.

On screen Chow is more recognised for an ability to carry a role in anything from an action adventure through to syrupy romance, usually with plenty of personal charm. And next week he will put that reputation to the test with his newest film The Last Tycoon. In it, Chow plays the role of Cheng Daqi, who rose from lowly ruffian to become one of the most influential gangsters in 1930s Shanghai.

Chow co-stars with leading actress Yuan Quan as his love interest in The Last Tycoon. But his role should be well within his comfort zone. After all, he first gained fame playing an ultra-cool gangster in the popular TV series Shanghai Beach in the 1980s. Later, he starred in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986), cementing his place in Hong Kong gangster scripts. A Better Tomorrow was so popular that Chow’s character Brother Mark, a trench coat-wearing gun-toting hoodlum, even became something of a cultural icon. Chow then reunited with Woo to make The Killer (1989) and Hard-Boiled (1992).

“When we did the casting for A Better Tomorrow, I had in my mind’s eye what I wanted. I wanted a modern knight: someone with a real personality and human qualities. I read in the paper that he [Chow] did a lot of work with orphans. This is what I was looking for – a strong man with a good heart. The image he portrayed to me was one of Cary Grant, Clint Eastwood, Alain Delon or Humphrey Bogart. I can see all of these characteristics in him,” the director said afterwards.

Having attained unparalleled popularity in Asia, Chow decided to try his luck in Tinseltown. In his first English-language film he played a hitman on the run (The Replacement Killers, in 1998). Later, he starred in The Corruption (1999) with Mark Wahlberg, this time crossing the divide to play a New York City policeman.

Though better known for his action style, Chow admits that he doesn’t like violent scenes and is more comfortable playing comedic or dramatic roles. But Terrance Chang, Woo’s long-time producer, says Chow’s problem is that his English hasn’t been good enough for many roles, so he has tended to be offered action films. The best role that Chow managed to get in Hollywood, Chang reckons, was as the Thai emperor in Anna and the King, where the part didn’t require perfect English.

Chow’s biggest hit in the US was Lee Ang’s Chinese-language martial arts flick Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Chow’s Li Mubai, a swordsman who has given up combat after decades of chivalric struggle, was cited as one of his most soulful performances.

But after years of struggling to score more meaningful roles in Hollywood, Chow seems to have refocused on Chinese cinema. The last few years has seen him feature mostly in mainland productions like Confucius (2010) and Let The Bullets Fly (2011).

Despite the strong cast, The Last Tycoon will face intense competition from other action films showing over the Christmas period. It premieres on December 22, facing off against kung-fu star Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiacs and later Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmasters (see WiC175).

But the veteran actor is still expected to pull in cinema audiences.

“Whenever Chow holds a gun he sends the audiences’ heart racing. Chow really is back!” Hong Kong director Felix Chong gushed on his weibo.

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