When Aaron Kwok started winning acclaim and awards for his acting performances a decade ago, many people were surprised. After all, Kwok was already one of the four “heavenly kings” of Cantonese pop music — Cantopop for short — a superstar musician and highly-rated dancer. Couldn’t he just trade on his celebrity without the need to be taken seriously as an actor as well?
Showbiz observers should not have been surprised. Kwok says the big screen was always a key part of his game plan. And that acting, singing and dancing are inseparable. “I couldn’t give up any one activity; I’d have to give up my life. What I love is entertaining, being an artist,” he says.
“When I was young, I wanted to be a Hollywood star,” says Kwok, who says he was initially attracted to American cinema by the perception of glitter and stars. “But, step by step, I wanted to be a better actor.”
After appearances in some series at Hong Kong broadcaster TVB, which has become famous as a training school for much of Hong Kong’s screen talent, Kwok’s first major acting award was the 2005 Golden Horse for feature “Divergence.” He has added to that kudos haul several times, and earlier this year collected the Hong Kong Film Awards acting prize for Philip Yung’s detective drama “Port of Call.”
Kwok was speaking to Variety at the recent Night of Stars event Oct. 6 in Hong Kong, hosted by Variety and Dragon Racing, another PMC group company.
Kwok is dapper, as befits his image as a gentleman at home with horses, who’s also known for his collection of supercars, and as a brand spokesman for an English tailoring firm. And he can be quirky. He showed up at the party with a halo of blue in his hair. But most of all, Kwok is vivacious and engaging, giving off the impression that at 51 life could hardly get better, or busier.
“Port of Call” helmer Yung is more casual and earnest, fitting his transformation from film critic to moviemaker. Having moonlighted as an AD for years, “Port” is his third feature as writer-director.
Though contrasting in presentation, the two men clearly have a close relationship and can finish each other’s sentences when discussing “Port” and Hong Kong’s ever-changing movie scene.
“In the 1980s, Hong Kong cinema was in its prime, making 300-400 movies per year,” Yung says. “The China market was not open. Back then, John Woo and Chow Yun-fat wanted to go to Hollywood. What happened when they went there, they wasted a lot of time getting to know the system there. We thought [American] culture and style were better. We even thought Caucasians were better. But gradually we discovered that Americans like to watch Asian movies and learn about other cultures.
“If stories are honest about their own cultures they can be attractive to others, too. Many of the films that Aaron has been in have been about different cultures in Asia. ‘Port of Call’ was one, ‘Father and Son’ another.”
Yung says “Port of Call” is unconventional. Based on real events involving the murder of a prostitute in 2008, and with his script revealing the killer midway through, it could not qualify as a whodunit. Rather there is an intensity to the drama that appealed to Kwok, and later to festival selectors, critics, and Hong Kong’s Oscar selection committee.
“Aaron is certainly a famous star, but is also a hard-working actor and took the time to read the script extremely thoroughly before committing,” Yung says.
“I found something deep down in the script. Beyond the drama,” Kwok says.
The role was the antithesis of his slick image. It required him to put on weight, dress in slovenly khakis and oversize glasses, and spin his hair into a spiky salt-and-pepper frizz.
“As an actor I don’t want to just do the Aaron Kwok face or style. I like to be inside different characters. I want to play the part,” Kwok says.
“When I looked at Hollywood as a youngster, it was gorgeous, sparkling, fabulous, amazing. But as I got older I realized that what they had was experience. So much of acting is about experience. Life gives you more angles to perform.”
And as an actor Kwok is coming off a huge year. Aside from “Port of Call,” he was back in part two of Cheang Pou-soi’s “Monkey King” franchise, and was co-lead in “Cold War 2,” a classic piece of Hong Kong crime action that was a big hit in China and broke the all-time box office record in Hong Kong for a Chinese-language film.
That kind of success would make some see Hollywood as the next step. Kwok’s ambitions seem closer to home and he working on improving his Mandarin.
“Since 1997, the Chinese market has opened. And in the past eight years it has blown up like a bomb,” Kwok says. “Where they used to only make 50 movies a year they are now making 500. Investors are pouring in.
“Certainly, in China, they have rules and restrictions and find some of our Hong Kong movies too bloody or too sexy. But there are so many great opportunities to work with directors and investors. With the Asia market now giving us so many chances, maybe we don’t need that Hollywood dream of old.”