Over the past decade, mainland actor Huang Bo has acquired a dedicated following in China by portraying apparent low lives. And he has won a cult status for supporting roles in popular comedies, such as Crazy Stone (Fengkuang De Shitou), Big Movie (Da Dianying) and Big Movie 2 - Two Stupid Eggs (Da Dianying 2). But it is only recently that he has finally, as he says, "tasted what it feels like being a superstar".
His work is gaining international attention, with his latest role in Cow (Dou Niu), a rural comedy directed by sixth generation director Guan Hu that entered the Horizons section of the 66th Venice Film Festival that ended last Saturday.
The 35-year-old actor told China Daily that his works have dark humor because he wants to highlight the sufferings of the common people.
"I feel that people escape temporarily from reality and realize their dreams in blockbusters like Spiderman and Superman, which are unreal but heroic. When they return to their real lives, however, they still have to cope with various problems," says Huang. "I want to reveal this real life with some humor and exaggeration."
In Cow, which is set during China's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), Huang plays a farmer, Niu Er, who is assigned to take care of a cow left by Communist Party guerillas. When the Japanese forces attack the village, set in Yimeng area of Shandong province, Niu Er struggles to keep his promise to protect the cow from being taken away until the day of liberation.
"He is an ordinary villager, somewhat selfish and cunning," says Huang. "But when faced with the enemy, he becomes brave. His simple-minded stubbornness drives him to carry out his duty. That is the charm of ordinary people."
Dismissing the mud-caked face, shabby clothes and disheveled hair that the role requires, he says, "I really don't care about how ugly or weird I look on screen."
Emphasizing that he prepared hard for the film, he says "so far, it has given me the most satisfaction".
"There are many long shots in the movie. For months, I was running, shouting and crying aloud," he recalls. All those efforts are worth it, he says. "When I made people laugh or cry on the set I thought 'I must have done something right'."
With 14 movies and six TV dramas under his belt, it is easy to see that Huang has a penchant for characters who seem to inhabit the fringes of society, people whose very ordinariness makes them interesting.
In the 2001 short film Come On, Let's Go (Shang Che, Zouba) also by Guan Hu, he plays a migrant worker who comes to the big city to pursue his new life as a bus driver, only to discover it is an illegally-run business. Since then Huang has played numerous small roles such as garbage collector, construction worker and even a simpleton.
The role as a straight-minded thief, Hei Pi, in young director Ning Hao's small-budget Crazy Stone in 2006 launched him into stardom. The black-humor movie, which grossed 23 million yuan ($3.37 million) nationwide, made Huang one of the most famous sidekicks in Chinese film industry.
Later, in another Ning comedy Crazy Racer (Fengkuang De Saiche) last year, Huang took the leading role, as Geng Hao, a professional cyclist, who loses a gold medal in a bicycle race and is then disqualified for using a banned substance after he is duped into advertising an energy drink by a crooked businessman surnamed Li. After his coach suffers a stroke, Geng becomes obsessed with getting compensation from Li to pay for the coach's funeral, which unwittingly leads him into a web of dark deeds. The movie, which grossed more than 100 million yuan, propelled Huang into the A-list of mainland comedians.
Huang says this greatly boosted his confidence. However, he is realistic about the type of films he wants to do. "After that success, most roles that came my way required me to come in, run, look stupid, show my teeth. But I know I can do more serious roles," he says.
He believes that cooperating with young directors gives him more opportunities to act. "They give me room to develop and allow me to be creative," he says of directors, such as Ning Hao and Guan Hu. "I like taking risks, and I don't care if (my character) has the biggest role in a movie or lives in the shadow of leading actors."
In his latest film with Ning, No Man's Land (Wuren Qu) shot in China's Northwest Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, Huang goes back to playing a supporting role as a totally bad guy who kidnaps a lawyer on a desert road. With barely any dialogue, Huang comes across as cruel and cold-blooded. "Since the role is that of a local bandit, I stayed in the desert for months to observe the local people's way of speaking and behaving," he says.
Huang acknowledges that he tends to reach into his own life experiences to guide his acting. At 19, he became fascinated with pop music and for seven years was a pub singer in Guangzhou and Beijing. He has also worked as a dance trainer and choreographer.
"I once dreamed about becoming a singer like Andy Lau but I am aware of my not-so-good looks," he jokes, scratching his bald pate. He later went back to his hometown Qingdao of Shandong province, becoming the boss of a toy factory. "That experience opened my eyes to a totally different world and enriched my acting."
Huang began his film career not as an actor but as a dub, a job he speaks of with fondness even today. "Lending my voice to various roles, especially cartoon characters, gives me much more space. The different facial expressions, body language and dialects that I can keep switching among have honed my acting skills," he says.
"There is good and evil inside all human beings. The roles I play have various shortcomings, but in the end, I hope the audience can still find a glimmer of hope," he adds.