Rising gongfu star

Max Zhang Jin plays a wing chun practitioner in Ip Man 3.
Max Zhang Jin plays a wing chun practitioner in Ip Man 3.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION & SCORPIO EAST PICTURES

Max Zhang Jin used to be better known as the husband of Hong Kong actress Ada Choi. While she was a marquee name in popular television dramas, the former wushu athlete's most notable screen appearance was as Zhang Ziyi's stunt double in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

With the release of Ip Man 3, however, Choi, 42, is happy to play the supportive spouse to Zhang as he takes his place in the spotlight.

In the holding room before the red carpet at the Hong Kong gala premiere of the film, the couple are a picture of contented sweetness.

Choi even jokes with the Singapore media: "He taught me a few gongfu moves while he was courting me, but stopped after we got married." They tied the knot in 2008 and have two daughters aged two and four.

Zhang's star has been rising these few years, thanks to memorable turns in high-profile films such as action flick SPL II: A Time For Consequences (2015) and Wong Kar Wai's arthouse gongfu drama The Grandmaster (2013), for which he won a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Supporting Actor.

The 41-year-old is the secondbilled actor after star Donnie Yen in the period-action flick Ip Man 3, which opens here tomorrow.

His daughters might have more difficulty than his wife in adjusting to his recent ascent in the movie world. There was a huge poster of him in Ip Man 3 on the way to his elder daughter's school and when Choi asked the girl who is in the movie, she said: "That's uncle."

Confusingly for her, he sports a moustache in the movie, but is clean-shaven now.

Of his career's upward mobility, Zhang says with gratitude: "There are lots of capable people in the world, but not everyone gets a shot. So when you get a chance, it's because of God's grace."

One might think that action scenes are a cinch for him given his wushu training. But he dispels the idea that they should be easy.

"I always want to challenge my limits with each film, be it physically or in terms of acting. When you've attained a certain level of speed or strength in your moves, audiences take that for granted and you have to be even more impressive to make them go 'Wow'. So action scenes are never a walk in the park."

Even for someone with bona fide skills, action scenes take their toll, regardless of whether he is receiving or inflicting a miscalculated blow.

The China-born, Hong Kongbased actor was almost blinded in his right eye while filming a fight scene in the Wong Fei Hung periodaction movie Rise Of The Legend (2014). And while filming Ip Man 3, he accidentally injured Yen's nose. "I was embarrassed because an actor's face is very important to his career. But once he found out it was just a scrape, he ended up comforting me instead."

Bruises and cuts are unavoidable and while Choi worries for him, the only thing she cannot accept is if he hides injuries from her. He adds: "Sometimes, if they're just nicks, I would want to keep them from her because I don't want her to worry."

That is the price of being an action star and it is one that Zhang is willing to pay. As he puts it: "There aren't that many people who can make gongfu films and so it is only right that we should pay this price because the things we get in return are not things most people can get. It can be tough, but you reap more rewards."

While he has been hailed as the successor to Yen, Zhang demurs. He laughs and says: "Big brother hasn't knocked off work yet. He's still in pretty good shape."

But it is clear that Zhang has ambitions. "No one can replace him in the hearts of audiences, but neither will I deny that I have my own strengths. No one can take away his glories, but neither can the radiance of those coming up be blocked. I'm just looking for my own path and not seeking to supplant anyone."

Boon Chan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'Rising gongfu star'. Print Edition | Subscribe