Megastar Chow Yun Fat packs a punch
This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Sept 27
Megastar Chow Yun Fat kickstarted director Zhao Linshan's film, The Assassins, when he agreed to star in it
A first-time film-maker directs a big-budget picture featuring not just Chow Yun Fat but also top-notch talent such as Zhang Yimou's cinematographer, Zhao Xiaoding. How is it even possible?
Incredible as it sounds, it did happen and the movie, The Assassins, opens in Singapore today.
To hear Chinese director Zhao Linshan tell it, Hong Kong actor Chow is the "saviour" who strode into his life last year like a John Woo hero, all guns blazing, and made the film possible.
That was an afternoon around spring last year, when the doors of a private room in a Beijing hotel were flung open, and Chow entered, pointed at Zhao and said: "Director, I liked your script, so I decided to meet you."
At the time, Zhao had been making commercials for more than 10 years, the 37-year-old says in an interview with Life! in an office of the Chinese studio Enlight Media on Tuesday.
He had been working on his idea for an epic about Cao Cao, the formidable warlord of the Three Kingdoms era, for more than three years.
Zhao's story, written with Chinese television writer Wang Hailin, tells of the twilight of Cao's life, when the general rides home from the battlefield, only to walk into a domestic minefield where killers, schemers and plotters - including his son Pi - are waiting in ambush.
Zhao was intent on casting Chow as Cao, though rumours about Zhao's plans spread in the industry, and his peers called him "a lunatic, a liar".
He says: "If you are thinking of making a movie, you might as well think big. This is human nature, isn't it?"
He laughs as he adds: "I was afraid this movie would come out and people would say, Chow Yun Fat should have been in this movie. I didn't want to have regrets."
Thanks to a middleman he declines to name, Zhao was able to pass his screenplay to Chow.
After an agonising seven days - which "passed like years", he says - he received a call from Chow's Singaporean wife and manager Jasmine Tan saying they would go to Beijing soon and would meet him then.
About two weeks later, an anxious Zhao turned up two hours early for their 2pm meeting in a hotel, and ended up having lunch first at a fast food place next door.
He recalls his puzzlement when he showed up for the appointment after lunchtime and was led to a large room with a round dining table.
Five minutes to 2pm, Chow made that "cinematic" entrance, and they soon started talking about Zhao's story.
Beside them, Chow's wife began to order food - a lot of it, seeing that Zhao is a hefty northerner - and Zhao says his heart sank a little when he realised he had overlooked one thing. "The Cantonese have afternoon tea at 2pm. He had actually asked me to afternoon tea."
Zhao had to pretend to have a hearty appetite, as his hostess heaped food on his plate.
His gut-busting performance paid off though. After Chow committed to the project, investors believed Zhao had some ability and gave him a 130 million yuan (S$25.4 million) budget.
Filming began in October last year. Led by Chow as Cao, the cast includes Taiwanese actor Qiu Xinzhi as Cao's son Pi; Taiwanese singer Alec Su as Emperor Xian, the puppet ruler who resents Cao; Taiwanese actress Annie Yi as Empress Fu, the ruler's wife who is ravished by Pi; and Chinese actress Liu Yifei and Japanese actor Hiroshi Tamaki as assassins in their midst.
Fast-forward to a press conference in a studio in the Enlight Media building on Tuesday, and Chow is making another dramatic entrance, escorted on stage by about a dozen actors dressed up as armoured soldiers.
Charming and cheeky, the superstar is king and court jester all rolled into one debonair, slicked-hair, grey-suited package, as he lavishes jokey praise on his co-stars, who are seated off stage.
Chow calls Su his "senior", who sang as a Little Tiger in the 1990s before Chow cut an album, and Qiu his "teacher", who speaks better Hokkien than him.
One of the tougher questions lobbed at Chow, 57, involves why he is starring in a Three Kingdoms movie after leaving another similar project, John Woo's Red Cliff (2008) and Red Cliff II (2009).
Chow dropped out of his role as strategist Zhou Yu in 2007, a few days into filming (the part was eventually played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai). He said at the time he had received the script only one week before, leaving him too little time to prepare.
On Tuesday, however, he side-steps the question, saying Zhou and Cao are different roles.
But Chow thanks Zhao for casting him as Cao, "the biggest CEO in the Three Kingdoms".
Asked what it was like on the set, Chow, an avid photographer, says he would go around, pointing his camera at people and telling them what to do.
But "when the director says 'Start', I'm his slave", he quips.
As Zhao tells it, however, Fa Ge (or Big Brother Fat, as Chow is called in Mandarin) was parental and protective.
"Fa Ge bet himself on me. He said, 'Since I believe in you, director, I'll act how you tell me to act,'" he recalls. "He didn't want to put pressure on me, a new director. Actually, he took good care of me."
In an interview after the press conference, Su, 39, says Zhao held his own on the set and did not look like a novice.
In fact, Su was the one who was nervous, although he has acted for more than a decade, in movies such as The Message (2009) and television shows such as My Fair Princess (1998).
When he got his role in The Assassins as the emperor with repressed ambitions and a penchant for singing poetic laments, he did not know how to go about playing the part.
But Zhao was very specific about how Su was to approach the singing, the star recalls.
He wanted Su to learn enough Chinese opera to sing in a narrow, weepy voice, but not too much, as Chinese opera did not exist until later in history.
It was a difficult balance to strike, but Su did as he was told, he says, because the director knew the story best.
After all, "it was his dream for a long time".
Away from Chow's clowning at the press conference, Yi, 43, gives a glimpse of the superstar's other side - the side which may have drawn him to The Assassins.
She says Chow once told her, during a chat: "Cao Cao is lonely, like me. A lot of people want me to make movies with them, but I can't make them all."
Instead, what he does mostly is "stay at home every day, take pictures, and keep my wife company".
"It's lonely," he said.