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the coolest actor in the world : In This Country, Chow Yun-fat Is Only a Cult Figure. But the Hong Kong Action Star Has a Global Audience That Has Made His Movies International Blockbusters. With China About to Take Back the Crown Colony, He Has His Eye on the United States.

March 12, 1995|RJ Smith | RJ Smith of Los Angeles is a contributing editor to Details magazine.

Some productions begin with a handshake, a conference call, a Bombay martini at Morton's. We might say they have a hundred starts, or no real start at all, for the inaugurating rituals remain private and various from project to project, studio to studio. But in Hong Kong, all films begin alike. They embark almost exactly as "Peace Hotel" did in a windowless production office on a December afternoon. They begin with a roast pig wrapped in cellophane and two dried fish on a table. They begin with a prayer.

The ceremony can't start until Chow Yun-fat, the star of "Peace Hotel," arrives. Asia's greatest actor, he's become a hip invocation in Hollywood, an insider's secret and an outsider's, too. Best known in the United States for his roles in John Woo's action movies, Chow is a cult hero to a widening circle of rappers, fanzine writers, punks and poets. He strides into the small room with his wife and a few assistants, and suddenly the place hums. Over six feet tall with a size-52 frame, tiny ears and an arc-light grin, he projects friendly good looks that mock the idea of the hunk. Even at 39, he shows some baby fat.

Chow's wife, Jasmine, passes out small envelopes of money, the size of seed packets, to the 25 or so reporters and the dozen photographers. Joss sticks are lit and bundles of red and gold paper ignited. Wai Ka-fai, "Peace Hotel's" director, Chow and members of the cast stand at the head of a long table, all placing a hand on a large meat cleaver. The actor raises the blade and hacks at the hog, slicing chunks of meat for the gathering.

On a desk, Wai Ka-fai has placed calligraphic instruments in specific relationship to one another. He believes that their feng-shui , their special arrangement, will bless the script he's written. "Filming is extraordinary," he says, "and you don't know what will happen. If you can pray, maybe the bad things won't happen."

This remains a time of great indeterminacy for the third-largest film industry in the world and for Chow, one of the world's most popular actors. "Hong Kong cinema" has come to mean action pictures obsessed with pop culture and allegory, drunk on energy and stunts and mayhem. These movies became an important export in the wake of Bruce Lee's kung fu success, and have given millions around the world their mental image of Hong Kong as an international metropolis on the make. But in that city itself, the talk is of declining ticket receipts and dwindling audiences, with the bad news perhaps just a prelude to worse.

The industry is contorting itself in anticipation of midnight, June 30, 1997, when Britain turns over the Crown Colony to the People's Republic of China. Some of Hong Kong's biggest stars, directors and producers have already moved to Los Angeles and Vancouver, and others have acquired foreign passports as insurance policies. Soon there won't even be something called "Hong Kong cinema": it will all be Chinese. Everybody senses the imminent end of something. But the end of what?

Chow Yun-fat has more options than most. He makes almost $2 million in U.S. money per movie. He's being courted by the Communists, who want him to film in China. Hollywood has expressed interest in him for years. The actor is poised to begin work on a American debut--"R.P.M.," a tale of a car-theft ring in the south of France, to be directed by Roger Avary, a former sidekick of Quentin Tarantino. It's the most likely Hollywood project among nine Chow is considering.

But Hollywood feng-shui has its own mysteries. At the time of "Reservoir Dogs," Tarantino told reporters he was writing a script for Chow. If a script exists, though, nobody around Chow has seen it. "Quentin doesn't like to talk about it," says Chow's friend and adviser, Terence Chang. (Through an assistant, Tarantino said he was too busy to comment.)

A jump to the United States is fraught with risk--it could alienate Chow's Asian following without boosting him here. When such stars as Jackie Chan or even Toshiro Mifune tried Hollywood, the film industry chose to brush them aside. Now, as the Hong Kong papers count off the days until the change-over, Chow acts as though there's no big decision to make. While he sees the value of coming to terms with his divisions before China comes to terms with hers, he's not going to fret about it in public. But then, he always looks cool.

The actors and journalists mark a moment of silence in the production office and then mingle. In a room full of edgy cast members and a director who's close to biting his nails, the star is nonchalant, reverting to the happy insolence that has made him an icon in a dozen countries. Wearing blue jeans and a denim jacket, Chow entertains reporters in a side room. He cracks peanuts with one hand, pops them in his mouth. When the phone rings, he doesn't hesitate to pick it up.

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