Daniel Wu once hosted a Hong Kong version of “Jackass,” and when he and three friends created a boy band as a private joke, then made a film out of it, his target was the fakery of the Hong Kong music industry. Yes, Cantopop music executives and publicity-driven pop idols were punk’d, all right, but perhaps Wu’s legacy with his first directorial effort, “The Heavenly Kings,” will be something more substantial than a karaoke whoopee cushion.
Born and raised in the Bay Area, Wu has spent the past decade trying to sort out what’s real and what’s not — he began as a model, after all — and, in the process, has become one of Hong Kong’s biggest movie stars. He might also be one of the saviors of a struggling industry in transition.
“The Heavenly Kings,” which will play at the San Francisco International Film Festival, brought Wu the award for best new director at the Hong Kong Film Awards earlier this month.
“We’re in a serious flux right now and have been since ’97,” Wu said last week over a burrito at Viva Taqueria in Berkeley, a favorite hangout when he attended Head-Royce School in Oakland. “We’re not really sure who we’re making the movies for anymore. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was like, ‘We’re going to make all these crazy movies and everybody’s going to watch them.’ There was a wide array of different kinds of things being made, whereas now, it’s all constantly being worried about selling it to the Americans, or selling to China, and forgetting about the local audience.
“We’ve lost our identity, our flavor.”
So Wu set out to directly attack the play-it-safe mentality of Hong Kong entertainment. He and three friends — Terence Yin, Andrew Lin and Conroy Chan — announced in 2005 that they were forming a boy band called Alive (alivenotdead.com). They recorded an album and altered their suspect singing voices electronically. To gain publicity, they released one song through the Internet, then called the media, claiming someone had illegally ripped off the song. The group was off and running, even performing before 20,000 fans at one show.
“The original idea came from Andrew,” Wu, 32, said. “He wanted to make a spoof movie about a boy band, and I said, ‘Why don’t we really become a boy band, fool everyone into thinking it’s real, film the whole thing and then edit a story out of it?’ We just rode that.
“I grew up here, and I used to go to (924) Gilman and watch this band called Green Day play. Now they’ve become this huge pop sensation. And then going to Hong Kong, and everything is karaoke music. … (Now) it’s happening all over the world. Somebody like Paris Hilton can cut an album. But now I know from making this movie that all you have to do is do something in the computer to make it sound perfectly in tune. It’s easy to fake it.”
Asked if maybe some good came out of all the hours he spent in the recording studio putting one over on everyone, Wu laughed. “My singing definitely improved, but it sucked. It sucked really bad. But that was the point, part of the point. We wanted to prove that you could actually seem successful even though you suck.”
Wu’s acting career, however, has been a steady, respectable climb. Just after graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in architecture (his father worked at Bechtel, his mother teaches at St. Mary’s College, and they now live in Walnut Creek), Wu went to Hong Kong to witness the 1997 handover from British sovereignty to Chinese authority. His sister, a former model, lived there, and he used her contacts to get some modeling jobs. A short time later, he was discovered by art house director Yonfan and was cast as a gay Hong Kong policeman in “Bishonen” (“Beauty”), an exceptional start to his career.
Under the tutelage of manager Willie Chan, who also manages Jackie Chan, Wu improved his Cantonese, appearing in dozens of films of varying quality, including “Purple Storm,” an action film with Joan Chen; “Love Undercover,” a romantic comedy with Miriam Yeung; and “Cop on a Mission,” a gangster flick.
Things began to change in 2003, when he produced his first film, “Night Corridor,” putting his burgeoning stardom at risk by again playing a gay character. With “One Nite in Mongkok,” a serious and seriously good film about a hit man hiding from the police, Wu’s acting took a deeper conviction. Most recently, he starred with Ziyi Zhang in the period martial arts fantasy “The Banquet” and Andy Lau in the gangster film “Protege,” which has pulled in an exceptional $33 million in the Chinese territories. “Blood Brothers,” set in Shanghai during the 1930s, is finished and is scheduled for a fall release.
Despite his stardom, financial independence (he has residences in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing) and a so-far successful romance with his girlfriend, model Lisa Selesner, Wu is not taking anything for granted. To decompress from the “urban madness” of Hong Kong, Wu has been on a sabbatical since Christmas, even spending a month in South Africa, where Selesner owns a piece of land that features a hut with no electricity.
Soon after the San Francisco festival, he will attend an acting workshop in New York “to go back to the basics, to cover some stuff I might have missed and work on my process.” He is also working harder on his Mandarin because his films are increasingly dependent on the Chinese market, and he’s also preparing a script for his second film as director, a small film about a grandfather set in a poor section of Hong Kong.
“I’ve definitely hit the right road now, I’ve found the right path in terms of what I want to do as an actor and what I want to do as a director.”