In control & breaking the mold

Updated: 2013-10-23 00:20

By Liu Wei (China Daily)

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Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu's new film is reflective of his career, depicting a young man's effort to control his own life, Liu Wei reports.

In control & breaking the mold

 Danial Wu proves he is more than a pretty face. Tony Zhao / For china daily

Good-looking actors often perform a passive job. Filmmakers tend not to assign them complicated roles. The audience remains too focused on their pretty faces to notice their acting expertise.

For a long time Daniel Wu was a victim of his "look".

When 15 years ago he starred in his first film Bishonen, he was immediately defined as a heartthrob, despite his inner calling to be someone subversive.

He was stereotyped that way with good reason: He was young, handsome, sporty, a new graduate from the University of Oregon's architecture department and founder of its kung fu club.

He has since starred in many romantic comedies, playing the kind of boyfriend that every girl would like to take home to meet her mom, or even dad.

In 2002's Love Undercover, Wu played a mogul who falls in love with a carefree undercover policewoman. It was a smash hit, but he does not like the film at all.

"After my honeymoon in the entertainment industry I began asking myself why I kept doing films I don't like. What's the point of it?"

One reason Wu, a US-born Chinese, had traveled to Hong Kong after graduation was to witness the city's handover in 1997, but a more important one was to discover what he really felt passionate about doing. Architecture was not the answer.

"I was happy in my college days, because I controlled every project with my own creativity," he says, "but when I worked as an intern in architecture firms I found there were so many restrictions, from building codes, to clients and the boss. One of my friends, who works in a large firm, drew a window for two years. I would have gone crazy."

Wu modeled and shot commercials in Hong Kong to earn traveling money before director Yofan cast him in Bishonen, a melancholic romance.

"Cinema found me, not the other way round," he says. "It was destiny, or luck, because the first day I was on the set, I knew it was what I wanted to do."

The film brought him quick fame, and a fixed image of Mr Right, but deep in his heart he yearned to make films like those of Stanley Kubrick.

"I was never that into mainstream music and books," he says. "The first movie that really hit my heart as a piece of art was (Kubrick's) A Clockwork Orange. I remember watching that when I was 15 and I realized, oh, movies could be more than Ghostbusters and Gremlins. They could be a lot more deep, interesting and reflective on society."

But back to reality, his company cast him in films with sex scenes around 2002, because "people thought my body was amazing and they wanted me to take my clothes off".

He tried, only to find he was confused after only one day on the set: "Why am I here and doing this?"

He went to Shanghai and spent three months with the city's martial arts team.

He started learning kung fu when he was 11, after watching Jet Li's The Shaolin Temple in San Francisco's Chinatown. His second mentor was a fellow martial artist of Li.

Kung fu helps as a philosophy of life, Wu says.

"Many people say they pity me that I have made no kung fu (film) masterpiece so far, but I don't think kung fu is for beating someone in a movie, it is more a perspective to see the world," he says.

Self-discipline, for example.

"I have learned kung fu for all these years, during which I have seen many people give up because the training is hard, but I didn't," he says. "You have to put in continuous effort."

When he returned to Hong Kong, he considered the future direction of his career. Mere acting was not satisfying enough for him to deliver messages. So he directed a film called The Heavenly Kings, which won him best new director at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2007.

The film was a mockumentary, revealing newly founded Hong Kong boy band Alive's struggle in the entertainment industry. They were required to wear ridiculous costumes, pay for "professional" fans and help create gossip. Only one of them could sing, but their album became a hit after digital enhancement in the studio.

One character says in the film about show business: "It's all about how you look, who you know and how you present yourself."

"I still hold exactly the same idea about the entertainment industry," he says. "This industry is all about producing hollow and fake things, that's why we need to put something truthful in making them."

His latest effort is Control, a film he stars in and produces. It is a futuristic thriller to be released on Dec 5.

"We had thrillers before, but not futuristic ones," he says. "I want to provide something different. When Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was a success, everyone wanted to make costume kung fu dramas; romantic drama sells, so everybody is making it now.

"If I can tell stories people do not normally see and they can think in a different way, to me that is a success already."

Control is set in a scientifically advanced futuristic city. Wu plays an insurance salesman who commits perjury to save his mother. After that he is threatened by a secret figure who forces him to commit more crimes, including robbing a bank.

Wu found a top insurance salesman in Hong Kong who gave him seven classes where he learned all about the profession. He also managed a two-week rehearsal, discussing script and acting skills with director Kenneth Bi and co-actors Yao Chen and Leon Dai. The rehearsal process is rare in Hong Kong films, which have become known for their speed in shooting and high efficiency.

"I would love to live as the character, like what Daniel Day-Lewis did in making My Left Foot — you know he even stayed in the wheelchair when taking a break. In Hong Kong if you did that people would think you are insane. So we try our best to achieve some balance."

Unlike some pretty actors who deliberately play ugly roles in an effort to make the audience focus on their acting, Wu never did that.

"That approach, I may be a bit harsh, is pretentious," he says. "Great actors move people by emotion, not their look. A handsome actor is great if he achieves that; an ugly actor is not great if he cannot."

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