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East Meets West: Top 9 Hong Kong actors starring in Hollywood films

By Gigi Wong 3 September 2019
Header photo credit: Lucasfilm / IML

Hong Kong not only provides the perfect backdrop to blockbusters—we can count Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Dark Knight as just a few of many examples that were filmed in the 852—it also exports prolific actors to star in Hollywood productions. Local veteran actors such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun-Fat have all been cast in a Hollywood blockbuster at one point or another throughout their careers. As the film industry and its casting practices grow in diversity, let’s recap the top nine Hong Kong actors who have left an indelible impression with their performances on the Hollywood silver screen.

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Photo credit: Variety

Bruce Lee 李小龍 in Enter The Dragon (1973)

Possibly one of the first—and most important—actors to put Hong Kong’s film talents on the global map, Bruce Lee starred in the joint American and Hong Kong production Enter the Dragon in 1973. Released within the same year of the unfortunate death of the icon, it was boosted by worldwide distributor Warner Brothers and their Hollywood budget.

In the film, Lee plays a Shaolin martial artist who agrees to spy on a reclusive crime lord, using his invitation to a tournament as cover. Many scenes were shot on location in Hong Kong—it thus captures the imagination of our shores and most of Asia. Having received rave reviews from Variety, The New York Times, and critics alike, it catapulted Lee to worldwide fame and made all the subsequent record-breaking martial arts movies following in his footsteps possible.

Photo credit: The Independent

Jackie Chan 成龍 in Rush Hour (1998)

As the first instalment in the comedic Rush Hour franchise, this Hollywood blockbuster counts Jackie Chan amongst its leads. The mismatched duo of Chan’s Inspector Lee and Chris Tucker’s verbose Agent Carter teams up to rescue a Chinese foreign diplomat’s kidnapped daughter, all the while trying to arrest a malicious crime lord along the way.

The blend between East and West leads to unbelievable flares and sparks, as well as ludicrous antics, carried by the wide cultural gap between the two protagonists and awestriking action choreography. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of Tucker’s loudmouth brand of comedy, you have to agree that Chan’s distinguished and well-loved action-comedy spreads out in full in Rush Hour, propelling him to an A-list action star in Hollywood and a household name worldwide.

Photo credit: Tested

Gordon Liu 劉家輝 in Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)

Local martial artist and actor Gordon Liu is known for playing the white-eyebrowed Shaolin grandmaster Pai Mei—who likes stroking and fondling his beard a lot—in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2. The film follows the Bride as she continues her quest of vengeance against former boss and lover Bill, as well as his gangs of assassins.

Tarantino’s personal obsession with Hong Kong kung fu films and Liu’s filmography history drove him in casting the established actor as the legendary master of Bak Mei and Eagle’s Claw styles of kung fu. Playing against Uma Thurman, Liu’s character teaches the Bride the fatal movement known as the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, which eventually helps her defeats her enemies. As an accomplished martial artist in real life, Liu is thankful for Tarantino for bringing his “clan’s martial arts to the world.”

Photo credit: Peter Mountain / Disney Enterprises, Inc

Chow Yun-Fat 周潤發 in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)

Back in 2007 when Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End hit the big screens, perhaps one of the most unanticipated elements of the film was the casting of Chow Yun-Fat as Captain Sao Feng (albeit he’s shown on the leftmost corner of the promotional poster). The plot follows Captain Barbossa, Will Turner, and Elizabeth Swan as they sail off the edge of the map to search for Captain Jack Sparrow and they must make their final alliances for one last decisive battle. It is when the crew travels to Singapore that they meet Chow’s Sao Feng, a character modelled on the notorious Hong Kong pirate Cheung Po Tsai during the Qing dynasty.

We don’t know about you, but when the facially-scarred, long-bearded, and bald Chow Yun-Fat makes his entry amidst steaming smoke, splaying his comically-long nails with an utterance of, “Welcome to Singapore,” in the most malevolent and mesmerising way possible, we let out a giggle. The image falls in line with Hollywood’s stereotypical approach of demonising the Chinese, a fact much scorned by Chinese censors, resulting in half of Chow’s scenes getting slashed.

Negativity aside, the film is an entertaining feat with timely gaiety, state-of-the-art special effects, and a grandiose showdown. If you think about it, Chow’s character is actually quite brilliant, considering the actor’s prolific history of playing gangsters who can shoot with precision even with his eyes closed. Here, he portrays a convincing fearsome pirate lord of Chinese descent.

Photo credit: Hong Kong Cinemagic

Edison Chen 陳冠希 in The Dark Knight (2008)

It’s a well-known fun fact that The Dark Knight had a small portion of it filmed in Hong Kong. One scene sees Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox visits Gotham City mob boss Lau’s company in Hong Kong, LSI Holdings, after Lau flees back to the 852. The vice president of the company, played by local singer and actor Edison Chen, greets Fox in the company tower lobby and tells him to leave his phone with the security on the ground floor.

Chen was originally slated to have a larger role in the film, but due to a notorious photo scandal, his scene was cut short. In the finished theatrical release, he appears only briefly as mentioned. Though his scene is rather insignificant, it nonetheless reminds Hongkongers of the scandal that made millions of headlines across town over a decade ago.

Photo credit: Bilibili

Jet Li 李連杰 in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the third instalment of Universal Studio’s The Mummy trilogy. It assembled a cast that encompasses an unprecedented amount of three prominent local actors, one of which is the famed martial artist and actor Jet Li, and the other two being Anthony Wong and Isabella Leong. The film follows Alex O’Connell, the son of famous mummy fighters Rick and Evelyn (played by Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello), as he unearths the mummy of the first Emperor of Qin. Cursed by a devious sorceress, China’s ruthless Dragon Emperor (portrayed by Li) and his vast army were buried in clay for millennia before awakening to take over the world. Though the plot is a bit lacklustre and the film tanked amongst critics, Li’s fight sequences have been hailed as scene-stealing. One scene that sees Li fight against Malaysian action heroine Michelle Yeoh’s Zi Yuan is particularly gripping.

Photo credit: Lucasfilm / ILM

Donnie Yen 甄子丹 in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Dubbed the universe’s strongest, Hong Kong martial artist and actor Donnie Yen stars as Chirrut Imwe, the blind monk who joins the Rebels’ mission to steal the plans to the Death Star. In the first standalone film from the Star Wars franchise, the Ip Man star reportedly suggested the role be blind as “the character could use some more distinctive characteristics.” He was also given the freedom to choreograph most of his stunts in the film, coming off somewhat as if you’re watching Ip Man’s exhilarating fight sequences, only within a galaxy far far away—and the fact that he’s going against millions of stormtroopers (not that we have any problems with it). Despite Yen’s initial hesitation of taking the role, fearing separation from his family for an extended time, he has expressed that he feels a great sense of achievement to be celebrated as part of Star Wars lore.

Photo credit: Independence Day: Resurgence

Angelababy 楊穎 in Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

The inclusion of Hong Kong superstar Angelababy in Independence Day: Resurgence—the sequel to iconic Independence Day released in 1996—caused quite a media fuss back in 2016. The sequel takes place two decades after the events of the first film, where our dear Earth faces yet another extraterrestrial threat. The world, thus, has to harness the power of secret alien technology to resist a second invasion.

Acting alongside The Hunger Games star Liam Hemsworth, Angelababy plays Rain, a tough Chinese fighter pilot whose parents died during the preceding alien incursion. Having a total of 23 lines in the film—a high number compared to Chinese superstars Fan Bingbing and Li Bingbing, both of whom have made appearances in Hollywood blockbusters—some argue that Angelababy is particularly recognised by the Hollywood industry. However, opponents debate that even if her character is omitted from the story, the plot would not be affected and that the casting choice was based purely on commercial considerations for the Chinese market. Well, we’d say to watch the film and decide it for yourself.

Photo credit: Yahoo News Singapore

Daniel Wu 吳彥祖 in Warcraft: The Beginning (2016)

Here comes the not-so-usual one. If you’ve watched Warcraft: The Beginning, were you able to spot the handsome and fair American-Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu? Highly anticipated by gamers around the world, this was the first film adaptation of the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft. The film centres around an orc horde’s invasion of the planet Azeroth via a magic portal. Human heroes and dissenting orcs, who form the resistance against this trespassing force, set out to stop the evil mastermind behind the war.

Wu plays the vicious orc shaman Gul’dan, whose ferocious and hideous appearance makes the visual connection to the actor with prominent cheekbones an especially puzzling one to figure out. It’s also Wu’s first time participating in shooting with motion capture and CG special effects—an experience deemed unique by the actor, although he was required to stand bent over during half of the film’s shooting to play the hunchbacked Gul’dan. A round of applause to the post-production and make-up teams that helped Wu morph completely into the CGI character.

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From Hollywood blockbusters to indie flicks, Gigi loves just everything about films. Aside from rock n’ roll, she is also partial to jazz and vintage music. You can find her indulging in all sorts of books, eating out, discovering vinyl albums, and playing Blu-ray movies on her TV.

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