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Everyman movie star

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2013-08-20 23:46

Huang Bo has excelled at playing the man on the street, which, instead of typecasting him, has provided him with a vast canvas for his continuously bubbling creativity.

Huang Bo does not look like a typical movie star. When he was admitted into the famed Beijing Film Academy, he was trained in voice acting, which was supposed to lead to behind-the-scenes jobs such as dubbing for foreign-language films.

A decade later, Huang is at the pinnacle of his game, commanding every platform from the movie theater to the small screen to the stage. He is the rare star who enables hugely profitable projects and at the same time earns accolades and respect from his peers and other professionals. Occasionally, he is able to combine these two miracles into one, such as in the stage play To Live, which debuted in 2012, is currently on a sold-out national tour and will be taken to other countries next year.

Everyman movie star

Huang Bo's performance has become a major selling point of theater director Meng Jinghui’s latest work, To Live.Provided to China Daily

To Live is a modern classic that was adapted for the screen in 1994 by none other than Zhang Yimou. The lead actor Ge You took home the best actor's trophy from Cannes. When Huang was contacted by avant-garde theater director Meng Jinghui for a stage adaptation, many advised him against it. "I like the movie version, but I believed the two would be different," he says. "Ten days before the premiere in 2012, everything was still a big mess. I almost suffered a breakdown. I told Meng it would be humiliating for me to face the audience every night if it turned out a flop. He said, ‘We had no choice. Every show was sold out.'"

The mishmash of a story of traditional realism and Meng's experimental treatment miraculously congealed into coherence at the last moment, but the biggest surprise was Huang's performance, which touched the hearts and soul of the audience who may or may not have seen the movie version. Though he was humble when compared with Ge's film role, his stage interpretation stands on its own with no fear whatsoever of being eclipsed by his predecessor. If you have read the original novel, you may come to the conclusion that Huang's performance is more emotionally powerful and also more loyal to the original.

Huang Bo is not afraid to step into big shoes worn by legendary figures. The image of the Monkey King has been depicted by numerous stage and screen incarnations. Huang was tasked to follow up Stephen Chow's post-modernistic version, yet he decided against imitating the classic 1995 Chow portrayal. The new version titled Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is a Chow vehicle, directed by the master of deadpan humor himself. "You could imitate the physical things, but not the spirit of his portrayal. So, I told myself, Why not start from scratch? But I had to work within the confines of his style."

This movie opened within a few months of several other commercial pictures starring Huang. They all garnered astronomical box-office returns, including the record breaker Lost in Thailand. But Huang dismissed it as pure luck because these were all ensemble pieces not driven by the star power of one person. But in an industry with mercurial variables, he is coming to be perceived as a good-luck charm. Even Say Yes! a romantic comedy about a beast getting the beautiful girl, based on a 1991 Japanese television series, raked in close to 200 million yuan ($33) at the box office.

Apart from his talents, which might not have been obvious before he achieved fame and are now turning in new surprises every year, Huang Bo's spectacular rise can be dissected from a sociological perspective. The conspicuous absence of good looks and debonair, which would reduce a lesser mortal to playing extras that form the background, has instead made him the epitome of the ordinary people, the Everyman, the little guy down and out on his luck but possessing the honesty and integrity sapped out from much of contemporary China. "The mainstay of our society is made up of little people. The wealth gap may not be that big in Europe, but here, if you stop a random group on a Beijing street, even a place close to the center of power and wealth like the Avenue of Eternal Peace, I guarantee that ‘big people' would account for no more than 10 percent."

The role that catapulted him into stardom in 2006's Crazy Stone is one of those without wealth or looks. He does not see it as limiting his potential, citing Charlie Chaplin and Jim Carrey as exemplars in this category. "When I was defined as a comedian, I was not bothered at all. I didn't know some people saw it as unflattering. It's not easy to be a great comedian. One needs perfect control and great drive," he says.

Huang is aware that he does not have the kind of presence that distinguished great thespians like Al Pacino. "It's useless to imitate them. But I can absorb energies from them," he says. There are two screen roles that elevated Huang from a mere good comedian, and they were both collaborations with director Guan Hu.

In Cow and Design of Death, Huang again plays the "90 percent" but the roles dominate the films to the extent that his characterizations become the focal point. While he does not depart from his comedic roots, he infuses the stories, set in allegorically claustrophobic locales, with a depth and a complexity that would be the envy of all comedians. The fact that these two movies turned out to be box-office disappointments did not hurt the chances of him being recognized for his achievements.

"Cow is the movie that as yet demanded the most of me," Huang recalls. It is character driven and director Guan worked very slowly, sometimes asking for as many as 138 takes for a shot. "I was younger and had more vigor in me. The more it looked impossible and uncertain, the more attraction it held for me. Of course I shared the same aesthetic belief with Guan."

Making Design of Death was again an arduous process. They discussed the treatment and Huang would offer multiple ways of doing a scene. The story of this movie actually was conceived before Cow, he reveals, and it evolved during production. As the director got married and mellowed, the ending was changed to one less cruel than originally planned. For Huang, these kind of artsy projects still hold a special allure, but whenever he has a say he would prefer them to be more accessible to the general audience. "Some movies are intended to make investors happy, and I would choose those that would make myself happy," he says diplomatically.

Huang made a living from singing and dancing when he was still a struggling artist in the 1990s. So making a musical seems a natural choice. "There was one project I participated in, but it did not reach completion. It would be fun to use all the performing skills I have," he says.

Another experiment that may catch his interest is a role that transforms his look so completely people won't recognize him — not into a handsome guy, but something like Robin Williams' character in Mrs. Doubtfire. "It would excite me because it requires building it from the ground up. Acting is a kind of fun game, so working at it will bring me joy."

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