One of the most instantly recognizable faces in Asia, Chow Yun-Fat is an actor of phenomenal renown and popularity. An icon of the action genre thanks to his numerous collaborations with Hong Kong directors John Woo and Ringo Lam, Chow gained fame playing the killer with a soul (and two large guns) in such films as Woo's classic A Better Tomorrow, and in doing so, inspired new trends in action filmmaking. However, although he is best known on the international level for his work in action films, Chow has also acted in films of almost every conceivable genre, proving himself equally adept in melodramas, romances, and comedies alike.
Born May 18, 1955, on Lamma, a small island off of Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor, Chow got his start as a professional actor while still in his teens. Chow's first break came in 1973, when he enrolled in Hong Kong TV station TVB's training program for young actors performing in a number of soap operas. In the early '80s, he would star in the station's popular series Shanghai Beach, earning lasting fame as the ultra-cool gangster Hui Man-Keung.
Chow broke into films in the mid-'70s, winning a lead role in the forgettable Massage Girls in 1976. He had his first critical success five years later as the star of Ann Hui's The Story of Wu Viet. He won a Best Actor award from the Asian Pacific Film Festival and Taiwan's prestigious Golden Horse for his performance in Leung Po-Chi's Hong Kong 1941 (1984), a romantic drama set against the backdrop of World War II. Two years later, he had his true breakthrough when then-obscure director John Woo cast him as hitman Mark Gor in A Better Tomorrow, a hugely influential movie responsible for the birth of the Hong Kong gangster film genre. The character of Gor has remained one of Chow's most popular to date, and made him -- to say nothing of Woo -- an instant star in Asia. The actor's portrayal won him a prestigious Hong Kong Film Award, and Gor became something of an icon in the action genre, influencing such international directors as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.
Chow would star in the two Better Tomorrow sequels, which followed in 1988 and 1989, but in the meantime he continued to prove his abilities in a number of other films like Dream Lovers, An Autumn's Tale, My Will, I Will, Prison on Fire, and the particularly acclaimed City on Fire - which became the inspiration for Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. One of the most standout films Chow would appear in during this period would be Woo's Hard-Boiled - a movie that would earn acclaim on both sides of the Pacific. Cast as a tough cop with a heart of gold who teams up with a precariously unstable undercover agent (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), Chow did his part to help amass one of the highest body counts in cinematic history, and in doing so, he further exhibited the kind of graceful will to destruction that had become his trademark. The film was Woo's last before he departed for Hollywood, and was the inspiration for Face/Off, starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in variants of the Chow/Leung roles.
Having attained such unparalleled popularity in Asia, it was almost inevitable that Chow would make the crossover to American films. He did so in 1998 as the star of Antoine Fuqua's The Replacement Killers. The film received mixed reviews, but Chow kept at with The Corruptor, and Anna and the King. Interestingly, Chow would find more success in America with a movie based on Chinese folklore in director Ang Lee's martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Released to standing ovations at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, the picture -- which cast Chow as a warrior haunted by the unavenged death of a friend -- enjoyed a long and healthy life at the North American box office, eventually becoming the most successful foreign-language picture ever released in the States up to that point. Better yet, Chow's work was universally cited by critics as one of the actor's most soulful, compassionate turns.
American audiences would next see Chow in House of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou's The Curse of the Golden Flower. A lavish and romantic period adventure set against the backdrop of the Tang Dynasty, The Curse of the Golden Flower presented a distinguished-looking Chow as the oppressive emperor struggling against a fierce rebellion. Though The Curse of the Golden Flower featured stunning cinematography courtesy of Zhao Xiaoding and took home multiple honors at the Hong Kong Film Awards, many fans felt that wasn't as cohesive as such previous Yimou efforts as Hero and the aforementioned House of Flying Daggers, and perhaps as a result, the film performed rather poorly at the American box office.
Despite seemingly shying away from big-budget Hollywood efforts since 2003's Bulletproof Monk, Chow would make a swashbuckling return to the world stage as cunning Chinese pirate Sao Feng in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. The eagerly anticipated third installment of the highly profitable Disney film series, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End presented Chow in the minor yet pivotal role of the one man who may hold the key to preserving the Age of Piracy against the nefarious East India Trading Company and its dreaded leader Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander). 2010 would find the actor portraying the title role of the legendary Chinese philosopher Confucius in a biopic about the figure, but Chow was back to the action genre later that same year, with a role in the gangster film Let the Bullets Fly.