HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s current crop of young stars is a different breed.
Born and raised in Canada or the U.S., they didn’t imagine their careers would rely on reciting lines in Cantonese, a language they barely spoke growing up. English, not Chinese, was their language of preference.
Not any more. San Francisco-born Daniel Wu figures he’s 85% fluent in Cantonese, thanks to his success in Hong Kong movies. Capitalizing on his good looks and good luck, he’s landed some plum roles since arriving five years ago.
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This month, he stars in “Love Undercover,” a romantic comedy that has so far proven a top box office draw. Next week, , local audiences can see him in “Princess D,” a Sylvia Chang-directed drama about urban youth dealing with love and responsibility. Among his co-stars is Vancouver-born Edison Chen, who launched his acting career two years ago with “Gen Y Cops,” becoming a singing sensation along the way. Outsiders like Wu and Chen aren’t the first to break into Hong Kong movies. New York-born Michael Wong made noticeable headway in the 1980s, albeit in heavily American-accented Cantonese. Sometimes, he was simply dubbed. Same goes for sultry Montreal-born actress Christy Chung (“Gen X Cops,” “Jan Dara” and the upcoming “Highbinders”).
In a time when Hong Kong’s biggest movie stars — Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Jet Li, Chow Yun-fat — are taking on roles at home as well as abroad, some appreciate that overseas Chinese are seeking their fame and fortune here. “The ready explanation is that this is the globalization of world cinema,” says Sam Ho, a film critic. “There is a brain drain of talent to Hollywood but there is also a brain gain to Hong Kong. It’s a two-way traffic of talent.”
Working in your non-native tongue isn’t easy, and many still do it with a trace of an accent. Hong Kong’s slapdash style of filmmaking means these actors must work harder than local thesps at learning their lines. Rewrites faxed to actors on the set are written in Chinese, which they don’t understand. “It’s tough sometimes,” says Chen, 21. “I get the script in Chinese and I have to have it written out in a way that I can remember.”
Neither Chen nor Wu took Cantonese lessons; they picked it up with the help of locals and film crew. It helped that they grew up listening to their parents speak the language.
Among these actors, one thing’s for sure: they’re all grateful for the lucky breaks they’ve had in Hong Kong. “I’d be typecast if I was an actor in the U.S.,” says Wu, 27, who has taken on a number of lead roles and is considered a promising young actor. “I’d be playing the laundry or delivery boy with maybe one line if I was lucky. Here, I’ve had the chance to do a bit of everything: romance, comedy, drama, action.”
Indeed, after being discovered by director Yonfan in 1997 and starring in his “Bishonen,” which made the rounds on the festival circuit, Wu has worked at the typical warp speed Hong Kong actors are famous for, churning out 20 films so far.
Why can non-locals find success in this market? Some critics believe young Hong Kong filmgoers — including those who have lived abroad — see westernized versions of themselves in these young stars. Elsewhere in Asia, perhaps filmgoers can relate to non-Chinese speaking Asian stars.
It helps too that the subjects of local films aren’t completely Hong Kong-centric: today’s films include characters from say, Cambodia or the U.S., giving overseas Chinese greater justification for being on screen.