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Everyman movie star

Updated: 2013-08-21 09:06
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
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

Limelight | Huang Bo

Everyman movie star

Video: Exclusive interview with Huang Bo (Chinese)

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, observes Raymond Zhou.

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.

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.


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