Chinese actor Huang Xuan was such a fan of the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (2002) that he used to take photos on a rooftop with his friends in college, pretending that they were Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Andy Lau in that iconic finale.
So one could say that working with that classic film's creative team on crime thriller Extraordinary Mission, recently in cinemas here, was a dream come true for Huang, 32.
Alan Mak was co-director and co-writer and Felix Chong was co-writer of the acclaimed Infernal Affairs trilogy. Mak and Anthony Pun directed Extraordinary Mission, which was scripted by Chong.
Huang, a graduate of Beijing Dance Academy, tells The Sunday Times in an e-mail interview: "I'm really grateful. The directors were really good at communicating with actors and protecting actors on set and I learnt so much."
This was Huang's first action film and it was a full-on affair with lots of scenes of fighting, speeding in vehicles, gun battles and explosions.
He says: "This was a new experience and a challenge for me. I've always wanted to play an undercover cop and to try doing an action flick, so Extraordinary Mission fulfilled two of my dreams."
What is extraordinary is also the actor's rise in the past few years. He had appeared in the Golden Horse Award winner for Best Film, Blind Massage (2014), as Xiao Ma, a masseur who had lost his sight in a childhood accident.
But it was his turns in China's most watched dramas of 2015 and 2016 that rocketed him to new heights of popularity.
In the 81-episode historical drama, The Legend Of Mi Yue (2015-2016), he was Huang Xie, a nobleman who was the titular beauty's first love.
He went contemporary next in Les Interpretes (2016), in which he played Cheng Jiayang, son of the foreign minister and a genius interpreter.
Having conquered the small screen, Huang is advancing on big screen territory with leading man roles. In Extraordinary Mission, he plays Lin Kai, a supercop who goes undercover to bring down a drug syndicate.
He brings a compelling intensity to the role and, just as importantly, is able to look suave while riding a motorcycle on rooftops and inside a building.
One would not have guessed that he filmed all his motorbike scenes with his leg in a plaster cast. The accident happened after a take when he fell while riding back to the starting point and the bike smashed onto his leg.
He recalls: "We were shooting in a small Thai town so the medical facilities were not great. An orthopaedic doctor arrived only after three days and diagnosed that the entire ankle ligament had been torn."
But the consummate professional points out that his injury did not delay shooting. He continued to work with his leg in a cast, hobbling about with the aid of a crutch or moving around in a wheelchair.
He downplays the tough lot of an actor's life, though. After all, he was playing an undercover cop, he says.
"As actors, we can have another go if our performances aren't on point. But a real-life cop could well lose his life over the wrong expression."
The actor gets to go through his whole repertoire of expressions with leads in two other major films coming out this year.
In Youth, directed by Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock, 2010) and scripted by prominent novelist Yan Geling, is a drama about the members of a cultural troupe and it spans 1970 to the 1980s.
The Legend Of The Cat Demon is a Japanese-Chinese fantasy mystery film helmed by Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, 1993).
On how he chooses his projects, Huang says: "I prefer characters with a rich interior life, such as Blind Massage's Xiao Ma and Extraordinary Mission's Lin Kai.
"I also get to benefit by working with great directors and more experienced actors."
He also dabbles in singing - he has released a few singles, including tracks used in his drama serials - but he says that he is focusing on acting.
He will be shooting a TV series about start-ups and China's so-called "ma nong" (a reference to programmers as coding peasants).
Huang says: "I hope to have more different types of work and roles to present to everyone."
The new leading men of Chinese cinema
Huang Xuan is among a new crop of stars from China who got their break on television and are now all over the big screen.
They include Wang Kai from Nirvana In Fire, Lin Gengxin from Scarlet Heart, Feng Shaofeng from Palace, Chen Xiao from The Romance Of The Condor Heroes and Zhang Han from Meteor Shower.
It is probably not a coincidence that so many of them played debonair princes and heroes who win hearts as they fight their battles.
FENG SHAOFENG, 38
Television: Palace was one of the time-travelling period drama hits of 2011, with Yang Mi's Luo Qingchuan caught between Feng's eighth prince and Mickey He's fourth prince.
Film: The following year, Feng appeared in five movies, including fantasy action film Painted Skin: The Resurrection and psychological thriller Double Xposure with Fan Bingbing.
He appeared as the monk Tang Sanzang in the hit fantasy flick The Monkey King 2 (2016) and will reprise the role in next year's The Monkey King 3.
He will also be seen in the highly anticipated big-screen adaptation of The Three-Body Problem, based on Liu Cixin's Hugo Award-winning novel (first serialised in Chinese magazine Science Fiction World in 2006).
WANG KAI, 34
Television: In the perilous game of thrones that was Nirvana In Fire (2015), Wang plays Xiao Jingyan, an overlooked prince who becomes a key contender for the position of emperor.
The show was a critical and popular hit, with Wang winning Most Popular Actor (Mainland) and Breakthrough Actor at the China National Drama Awards.
The series reportedly had five billion views on online video platform iQiyi alone.
Film: Even in the ensemble action flick Railroad Tigers (2016) that starred Jackie Chan, Wang stood out as a cool sharpshooter.
He can currently be seen in the mystery thriller, The Devotion Of Suspect X, based on Keigo Higashino's 2005 novel, which was previously turned into the hit Japanese film, Suspect X (2008).
Wang plays a genius physicist who is roped in to solve a crime.
LIN GENGXIN, 29
Television: In the thrilling time travel period drama Scarlet Heart (2011) (the more evocative Chinese title being Startling By Each Step), Cecilia Liu's Ruoxi is torn between Nicky Wu's fourth prince and Kevin Cheng's eighth prince.
Meanwhile, Lin was quietly stealing hearts as the dashing 14th prince and went home with several best newcomer awards, including one at the Sohu TV Drama Awards.
Film: He was a rakish con man with a winning smile in the caper For A Few Bullets (2016) and buried under heavy make-up as Monkey in Journey To The West: The Demons Strike Back (2017).
CHEN XIAO, 29
Television: He landed his first leading role in Legend Of Lu Zhen (2013) as a prince who becomes the love of the titular female prime minister.
The series was a hit and Chen was named Most Influential Young Actor at the TV Drama Awards, among other accolades.
The following year, he starred in The Romance Of The Condor Heroes, the umpteenth remake of Louis Cha's popular wuxia romance.
He played the hero Yang Guo and his great love Xiaolongnu was played by Michelle Chen (You Are The Apple Of My Eye, 2011), who is now his wife.
Film: He had a lead role in the coming-of-age comedy drama, Who Sleeps My Bro (2016), reprising the role of Lin Xiangyu that he played in the Web series released earlier that year.
He has a supporting role as the brother of the traumatised protagonist played by Ariel Lin in The Mysterious Family, which is currently in cinemas.
He will also be seen in the upcoming star-studded blockbuster, The Founding Of An Army, which marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army.
ZHANG HAN, 32
Television: Each small-screen iteration of the Japanese school romance manga, Boys Over Flowers, has created new idols from Taiwan to Japan to South Korea.
In China, Meteor Shower (2009) and Meteor Shower II (2010) blazed a trail to stardom for Zhang, who played the spoilt rich kid Murong Yunhai.
Incidentally, he was classmates with Wang Kai at The Central Academy of Drama, from which they graduated in 2007.
Film: He has taken the lead in romantic comedies such as Youth Never Returns (2015) and The Rise Of A Tomboy (2016).
He is slated to appear in a few films this year, including sci-fi drama The Three-Body Problem and period spy thriller Eternal Wave.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 23, 2017, with the headline 'Man with a Mission'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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