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Saturday, Feb. 5, 2000


Tokyo's visiting emperor

Stories buzz when Hollywood big names come to Tokyo. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a raging megalomaniac, Tom Cruise once ordered 600,000 yen worth of sushi up to his hotel room, Robin Williams was a sweet guy who bought a giftfor his limo-driver, but Chow Yun-Fat, a k a "Emperor of Asian Cinema," has no flashy stories. In person, he exudes modesty and moderation. Not for him to do anything conspicuous, he's more the punctual, professional and courteous type. He looks in fact, the exemplary model of the Asian Male, a father and husband figure whose attractions, though subtle, beam out like searchlights.

For some time now, those lights have been crossing over to Hollywood. At 45, Chow seems to have the American Dream nestled in the palm of his hand. He is the first Asian actor to have his hands immortalized on the pavement outside the Chinese theater, and the first to star in a major studio motion picture.

That glamour, however, was muted when he strode into the Imperial Hotel conference room Monday to promote "Anna and the King" in which he plays Mongkut, King of Siam. Smiling benevolently and dressed in a comfortable cotton ensemble, the impression was more hardworking dad lounging around the house on Sunday, than the Siam royal who lorded over 23 wives and 42 concubines.

As for the press, he treated them like neighbors who dropped in for a chat. Ever the gracious host, his first words were of gratitude: "I thank you for your attention, for the attendance and for all those cameras -- I hope you [meaning the photographers who were being drenched in their own strobe lights] are not too uncomfortable."

Twentieth Century Fox had cautioned everyone beforehand that personal questions were out of the question and to please be on our best behavior, as befitting the manner before a gentleman. And as the Q&A got into full swing, the whole room seemed to sit straighter and button their shirt collars. This man wasn't called "emperor" for nothing.

"Anna and the King" was a megaproject that had been shelved for seven years. For Chow, this was "one movie that I badly wanted to do. I knew it was lot of work to learn Thai as well as brush up on my English, but it was one of the greatest opportunities of my career. To an actor, opportunity is everything."

The additional bonus was working with Jodie Foster. "During the three months of location work in Malaysia, she was the kindest, most hard-working and professional person on the set. I had always admired her work and to be able to observe her at close quarters was a treat. To converse with her on a daily basis was simply one of the most wonderful events of my career."

And apparently Foster didn't get impatient when Chow kept stepping on her foot during the dance scene: one of the film's highlights.

"I was really bad at this. They had to retake again and again and it took us nine nights to shoot it [it's a night scene]. Nine nights for nine seconds of film time! I felt so sorry."

Chow was so enamored with Foster that later, he went outside the script to incorporate an action of his own. "Anna and the King" is a love story but an unconsummated one -- the couple doesn't exchange words of love let alone a kiss.

Chow grinned as he said: "The director [Andy Tennant] had told me not to kiss her on the mouth. So I took the plunge and kissed her on her hand. If I didn't, the opportunity would have gone by forever. As I said, opportunity is everything."

Later, Chow slipped into a more serious mode. He claims that the role, huge as it was, hasn't set off an avalanche of similar offers. "Nothing has changed. After 'Anna,' I worked with Ang Lee on his new movie ('Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon') and I feel in need of a break."

Future projects are still being mapped out but Chow admits good roles are hard to find.

"Asians in Hollywood have a difficult time. We're usually Chinese mafia thugs or waiters in Chinese restaurants. Those are the roles that are usually on offer, you can't get away from that."

But he was far from bitter about it: "I want you to see me, not as a Hollywood star but as an Asian who, with luck and hard work, was able to go and work in Hollywood."

"Anna and the King" opens today at Nihon Gekijo in Yurakucho and other theaters.

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