Who is the coolest actor in the world?
Tom Cruise? Bruce Willis? Brad Pitt? Johnny Depp, you say? Most of these famous names would have been ignored in 1995— the year that the Los Angeles Times claimed Chow to be the “Coolest Actor in the World.”
Born on 18 May 1955, Chow Yun-Fat is now a well-known face not only in Asia but all over the world. The 59-year-old came from humble beginnings: he was raised on Hong Kong’s Lamma Island and sold dim sum to support his family, leaving school at 17. However, his life took a rapid turn for the better when he signed up for some courses at TVB (Television Broadcasts Limited), Hong Kong’s premier television station, in 1973. The budding actor gained fame locally when he appeared in soaps such as Hotel and Shanghai Bund and in the film The Story of Woo Viet (1981), but his cinematic career really took off under the direction of famous director John Woo following his role as action hero in the box office hit A Better Tomorrow (1986).
Chow has acted in no less than 80 films throughout his career. Known best for his action roles, he has also gained popularity in Hollywood, starring in films such as Anna and the King (1999), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Shanghai (2010). According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), he has been nominated for 21 awards and won 9, including Favorite Actor (People’s Choice Award, 2011) and Outstanding Abroad Actor (Huabiao Film Award, 2011).
But even though his life on screen has been about fighting off the bad guys, throwing a couple of mean punches, making sure the villains stay down, . . . in real life the actor despises violence. “Actually, I’m a Buddhist,” he says in his biography on Tribute.ca. “I don’t like [violence] at all. But I’m forced to do it because it’s my job.”
Tying together his spiritual beliefs and acting talents, in 2003 Chow starred in an action film with a twist. Aptly titled “Bulletproof Monk,” the film’s poster shows Chow Yun-Fat bravely wielding two guns and wearing an Eastern-style vest, bullets flying everywhere. How can a monk be bulletproof, you might ask? In the film, Chow plays a Tibetan monk who is responsible for protecting an ancient scroll. His action sequences are spot on, and his repertoire as an action star is fully displayed . . . bulletproof or not, he can definitely protect that scroll! In an article in SFGate, Mick LaSalle writes: “He’s more robust than the average monk, and he has a nice face to look at for almost two hours.” The movie is based on a three-comic series from the 1990s, and is also used as an example of the portrayal of Buddhism in Hollywood in the book Buddhism and American Cinema (Whalen-Bridge and Storhoff 2014): “The plotline of Bulletproof Monk aligns closely with that of a Chinese martial arts film, even casting the well-known Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-Fat in the lead role” (p. 78).
Even though he has delivered blockbusters and is acclaimed overseas, Chow remains humble about his success. When questioned on how it feels to be one of the biggest movie stars in Chinese-language cinema, he says, “I’m just an actor. I’m not a star” (Time Out Hong Kong).
In 2009, Chow appeared on examiner.com as one of the “Top 10 Celebrity Buddhists.” His words from the short documentary Chow Yun-Fat Goes to Hollywood reflect his gentle manner: “If I can associate with the people very, very gently very, very friendly every day I’m happy. If I don’t pay them respect I feel terrible inside [sic].” In a review of the documentary, commentator “laadolf” calls the video a “terrific portrait of a terrific actor and human being. . . . [a] refreshing documentary which highlights a talent who is not only gifted in his chosen profession, but truly a decent, admirable human being.” The review also claims that Chow is a very kind person on-set and knows everyone’s names, greets everyone personally, helps with sets and equipment, pays for meals for the entire crew, and even personally helps anyone who gets sick.
Chow Yun-Fat’s latest activity involved voicing his opinion on the current “Occupy Central” movement in Hong Kong. He supports the movement, and has criticized the police for their use of tear gas at protest sites. “I’ve met the residents, the students—they are very brave and it’s touching to see that they’re fighting for what they want,” he says in a report in Apple Daily. “The students are reasonable. If the government can come up with a solution that the citizens or students are satisfied with, I believe the crisis will end.”
Whalen-Bridge, John, and Gary Storhoff, eds. 2014. Buddhism and American Cinema. New York: SUNY Press.
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