Zero to hero

Zero to hero
Actor Mark Chao (left) with Tsai Yueh-hsun, director of the movie, Black & White: The Dawn Of Justice.

Five years ago, no one had heard of Mark Chao.

Today, the 30-year-old TaiwaneseCanadian actor is one of the hottest stars in Chinese-language cinema, working with the biggest names in the industry, including the likes of film-makers Tsui Hark and Doze Niu.

But the one director that Chao truly owes his success to is Tsai Yueh-hsun, 46, who cast the then unknown actor as the lead in the now iconic TV drama Black & White (2009), amid doubts that Chao could play a righteous, hot-headed cop.

"Many people I know were surprised to know he had been chosen as the lead because no one knew who he was.

He was just this polite kid who returned to Taiwan from Canada with no acting experience. But I told others not to underestimate him.

I can't explain what it was, but I had a feeling he would be pretty great for the role," Tsai says.

Speaking to Life! last week to promote new movie Black & White: The Dawn Of Justice, along with Chao, Tsai explains cheerily in Mandarin that he saw "an explosive quality" in the actor that was perfect for the role of the cop named Hero Wu.

"When you look at him, Mark looks like the ultimate nice guy, the gentleman. But I could tell there was a big explosive force within him waiting to get out."

Right on cue, as if to shatter the illusion of him as a gentleman, Chao suddenly pipes up with a grin: "Did you notice my explosive quality when we were in the toilet or something?"

The two burst out in laughter, evidently pleased by their own goofiness. They do this often throughout the joint 20-minute interview, poking fun at each other incessantly, even finishing off the other's sentences.

Chao, in particular, looks utterly relaxed and is in the mood for jokes - unlike the actor whom Life! spoke to two months ago who was friendly and charming, if utterly polite to a fault.

It is obvious Tsai not only sees a more colourful quality in Chao - one that is surprisingly playful - but also draws it out of him.

Black & White: The Dawn Of Justice is their third collaboration and the second big-screen follow-up to the TV drama that was a huge ratings hit in Taiwan at the time of its broadcast, often topping the viewership charts for a drama in its time slot.

It made Chao a household name and earned him the award for Best Actor at the Golden Bell Awards, Taiwan's equivalent of the Emmys. The show also won a Golden Bell for Best Drama and, for Tsai, Best Directing For A Television Series.

In 2012, Tsai took the TV show to the movie world with the film Black & White Episode 1: The Dawn Of Assault. It was a massive box-office hit, earning NT$120 million in Taiwan and 430 million yuan in China.

The latest movie in the franchise, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, is already making its mark at the box office in China since its release there last week.

In three days, the NT$600 million (S$25.2 million) budget film earned more 120 million yuan (S$25 million).

In the new film, Hero is hailed as, well, a hero, for keeping the citizens of Harbour City safe after he took down airplane hijackers in the previous movie.

The peace is only temporary, as an elite group of terrorists known as the Nightwalkers bomb all access routes out of the city.

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