Movie fans universally agree that Chow Yun-Fat is one of the definitive Asian male leads, right up there alongside popular western counterparts like Marlon Brando, James Dean and Alain Delon. He captured the look, style and voice of a whole generation and redefined the image of the iconically cool hero. Chow also starred in the classic 'heroic bloodshed' movies that launched the international career of John Woo and peppered the bullet-holes of Hong Kong action forever on the face of cinema.
His acting career started when his application was accepted for an actor trainee course at the famous TVB television station. He subsequently signed a three year contract with the studio and began his acting career appearing in popular soap operas which made him a household name with a domestic TV audience. One of his first major hits was The Bund, a period drama about a gangster in 1930s Shanghai. The series became one of the most popular Hong Kong television series of all time and spawned various sequels and spin-offs, including two feature films and two complete series remakes.
Neverthless, Chow always remained determined to move over to film and had the opportunity to nurture this passion throughout the early 1980s, starring in films like The Postman Strikes Back and Hong Kong 1941. The transition to suave, gun-toting star fans recognise today came about when he was offered the chance to play one of the leads in John Woo's groundbreaking action masterpiece, A Better Tomorrow. As a filmmaker, John Woo, himself, was shifting away from his former image, having written and directed a variety of films since the early 1970s, ranging from Kung Fu to comedy. Having struck a new and emotionally harrowing chord with his first ballistic action movie, Heroes Shed No Tears, A Better Tomorrow cemented the director's reputation as a new force to be reckoned with. The movie even earned Chow his first of three Best Actor Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards and became a cult phenomenon.
What followed is virtually a checklist of classic Hong Kong movies that should make their way onto every fan's 'must see' list. Naming just a few, Chow's work continued with Prison on Fire, City on Fire (the inspiration behind Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs), Tiger on the Beat, City War, Triads: The Inside Story, Rich and Famous and God of Gamblers, not to mention John Woo's following hits, A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer, Once a Thief and Hard Boiled. Although these titles were well received locally, some took a while to connect with fans around the world. However, it was John Woo's genre-defining work in the action realm which brought Chow to a whole new audience. Later, Chow continued evolving his onscreen style and persona with lighter action outings like Treasure Hunt and Peace Hotel before making his transition to Hollywood.
Chow's first appearences in Hollywood hit hard with roles in powerful, gritty action thrillers like The Replacement Killers and The Corruptor before moving noticeably into more commercial territory. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon showed many audiences not only the classical wuxia filmmaking style, but also put forward a bold, warm and easily likeable new male hero, in the form of Chow's character, Li Mu Bai. Following the global success of the film, Chow starred in titles like Bulletproof Monk and Curse of the Golden Flower which further broadened his appeal and showed a willingness to tackle new and varied projects.
With the UK release of Confucius not far off, fans will undoubtedly be anticipating the re-arrival of Chow's effortlessly commanding persona through an epic, lavish production depicting one of history's most renowned philosophers. With a great deal more to come, there has never been a better time to catch up on the back catalogue of one of cinema's coolest heroes and rediscover some forgotten gems from the Hong Kong archives. Since there's such high demand for John Woo to revisit his classic action style, perhaps an old-school reunion between the two would be just the recipe to unite action cinema fans all over the world and deliver one last round of bullet-ballet to show the world how it can (and should) be done.