ONE YEAR AGO, Dan Wu returned to his homeland of Hong Kong to become a star.
Well, not exactly his homeland: Wu is a Bay Area boy, Berkeley-born, Orinda-raised and Oakland-educated (Head Royce). A pleasant, smart guy with modestly handsome looks, he actually visited Hong Kong to witness the handover and recover from his undergraduate studies. And if he’s not quite a star yet, he’s certainly on his way.
That he managed to star in three Hong Kong films without trying at all makes him mostly a victim of astoundingly good circumstances.
“It’s all, like, totally coincidental. I pray to the gods and thank them, ” says Wu, who peppers his low voice with the relaxed “likes” and “you knows” of California-speak. Wu has discovered if not religion, then Chinese fortune-telling, “just to keep my luck going, you know.” His kind of fortune has to be providential. After all, he’s 24: Chinese horoscopes, which run in 12-year cycles, decree birthday years in multiples of 12 as lucky.
The tale began last summer when Wu finished five sleep-deprived years of architecture at the University of Oregon, punctuated by summer internships. “I was super-stressed, ” he says. Degree in hand, he decided, “I need a break. I want to go somewhere before I start working in an office.'”
He had stayed in Hong Kong three summers back on an internship and had supplemented his income with part-time modeling. He dislikes the whole posturing, but the $200-an-hour earnings would pay for travel and lodging. Wu figured, “maximum one year, probably half-a-year, I would be back.”
Three months into his stay, his lean 6-foot-1 frame was plastered all over the city in a major Crocodile clothing ad campaign. The subway ad captivated one director. He wanted Wu for an audition.
Wu expected rejection. He had never acted before “plus,” adds Wu, whose parents are from Shanghai, “I couldn’t speak Cantonese. Hardly.”
At the meeting, the director, Yon Fan, explained the storyline of a gay policeman and asked if he had any problem with that. The Bay Area native answered, “I’m from San Francisco, whatever, and I have a lot of gay friends from school.”
Wu didn’t know much about Yon. All he could see in the director’s office was a poster of a transvestite. He assumed Yon must be making category III movies: soft-porn. “I thought, no, I don’t want to do this.'”
Five minutes after he left the office, the page came. Much to his shock, he had been offered the lead role. Wu called his modeling agency to decline, explaining his reservations. About 30 minutes later, his agent called back.
“She’s like, He’s really mad.’ And I’m like, why?’ And she’s like, I told him you didn’t want to do it ’cause it’s a category III movie and you don’t do that kind of stuff.'” Mortified, Wu called back to apologize. Yon turned out to be an acclaimed independent director. The posters were of his last film, the 1995 internationally praised “Bugis Street” starring Hiep The Le (“Heaven and Earth”) and Michael Lam Wei Leung (the film premiered in the Bay Area in October).
The mollified Yon still offered him the role, saying he would dub Wu’s Cantonese if necessary, a common practice. Wu negotiated and stalled for the next month. During that time, a singer/actress he had been training in wu shu, the flashy acrobatic Chinese martial art, invited him to a grand opening of a Planet Hollywood-type restaurant.
Meeting Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan was there. Wu was too intimidated to meet him (he still tries to avoid celebrities), but the actress not only ignored his wishes, she had them shake hands and mentioned that Wu was “pretty good in martial arts.”
“He goes, Oh really?’ and looked me up and down, and he goes, Do you have a phone number?'” Wu borrowed a reporter’s notepad and scribbled his number. Four days later, Jackie Chan’s manager, Willie Chan, called him in for an interview. Willie Chan offered to sign Wu up with Jackie’s JC Group, saying, “Well, you come highly recommended. Jackie really likes you a lot.”
Wu signed up. The very next month, December, he began shooting “Bishonin, ” Yon’s tragic love story told in present time and flashbacks.
In Hong Kong’s small film industry, another director soon heard of Wu. She was Mabel Cheung, a highly respected professional who last helmed the dynastic film “Soong Sisters” starring Michelle Yeoh. The role was for a movie about an American-born Chinese architecture student with middling Cantonese skills coming to Hong Kong to learn about his deceased father. “Wait a second, that’s me, ” Wu said when he first heard the synopsis for “City of Glass.”
He finally experienced the typical Hong Kong blitzkrieg filmmaking for his third movie, “Young and Dangerous: The Prequel.” The previous two shooting schedules lasted a luxurious four months. The prequel, the sixth in a wildly popular series about young gangsters, took 22 days: no rehearsals, no retakes and catnaps whenever and wherever (no trailers).
“I didn’t want to do it because I knew it was going to be really commercial and really cheesy, ” Wu confesses. He succumbed to his agent’s urgings to go for the high exposure, although “I don’t do things because I want to, like, try and get famous, especially like the acting thing.”
Life has rushed by so much that Wu hasn’t had time for contemplation or visits home until recently. “I never dreamed I would be doing drama stuff. I thought if I ever did anything in film, I’d be like an extra in some kung fu movie, right. Like, get kicked down some stairs or something like that.”
Martial arts film tryout
He almost had the opportunity. A few days after he signed up with the JC Group, Jackie Chan called him into a personal meeting. The mega-star asked the newcomer what he wanted to do. Wu admitted he had always wanted to have a small part in a martial arts movie, since the genre inspired him to do wu shu. “Dan, if you don’t have a videotape, I’m going to have to test you, ” Chan told him. Wu agreed nonchalantly, trying to hide his trembling hands.
They moved on to other subjects, then Chan offered him a ride. Wu waited in the lobby, where Chan later appeared with two men. “He goes, This is so-and-so and this is so-and-so, and they’re going to test you.’ And I go, OK.'” Then, Wu realized Chan expected him to test for the role right then and there. “So they moved the desks aside in the office.” Fortunately, they were simple punches and kicks. Then, as they progressed to the parking lot, Chan told him to do a wu shu form. In jeans, a collared shirt and on rubble, Wu went through the low knee-bends, extreme stretches and jumps.
“That was it. I never heard a word from him, about that (martial art role) since then.” (Wu did have a chance to do a commercial with Chan, filmed on the Great Wall of China and directed by the esteemed Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern, ” “Ju Dou”]).
Wu’s parents – Diana, a St. Mary’s College professor, and George, a retired engineer – have accepted his sudden career shift quite well. Then again, their older daughter Gloria is already the “Oprah” of Hong Kong television. Wu predicts he’ll be in Hong Kong for a few years. Then, he believes, “I’ll come back and resume architecture.” He continues to do design work so his skills dwon’t get rusty.
“Pressing my luck”
“I don’t want to do something I know I can’t do, you know. It’s not fair, because there are other people who want to act, who go through training and all that stuff, ” Wu says. “So if there’s ever a point where people are saying, like, this guy’s a bad actor, ‘ I’m going to work like hell to do much better or get out of there. … If I can’t do it well, it’s something for other people to do.”
He doesn’t plan any triumphant crossovers to Hollywood, although Los Angeles types comb Hong Kong for new talent. “I’m not that optimistic. I’m pressing my luck as it is.” Still, it would be nice to break into American films, if only to get another Asian-American face out there. He’s happy for nice guys like Chow Yun Fat, but at the same time believes the cultural mining typifies Hollywood myopia. Why cross the border for talent, Wu asks, when there is so much at home?
In the meantime, Wu is confirmed for a dramatic 25-episode television miniseries directed by Stanley Kwan, one of the biggest directors in Hong Kong (“Supercop” and “Rouge”).
“I’m telling it to you, but I don’t believe myself, ” Wu says. “Like a year ago I was here, right? I was right here getting ready to go to Hong Kong.
“I’m trying to keep things in perspective and be all reserved about it, ” he says. “Like, I said, if it ended now I’d be happy. If it kept going for another two years, I’d be happy, too. But I’m on this borderline now and we’ll sort of see what happens.”
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times