A Hong Kong superstar, Louis Koo has appeared in everything from thrillers and sci-fi blockbusters to romances and comedies. This year he received the Extraordinary Star Asia Award at the New York Asian Film Festival. 

The festival showcased three of his recent projects: In Broad Daylight, a drama about abuse in an assisted living facility; The White Storm 3, part of a trilogy of action films about drug cartels; and Vital Sign, a drama about emergency service workers. Koo’s One Cool World produced the first film; he stars in the other two.

As the veteran in a three-man ambulance crew, Koo plays a moodier character in Vital Sign than his fans usually see. A father and widower, Ma Chi-yip is nearing the end of his career, struggling with bureaucracy and his own physical ailments. 

“I saw a different side of him, maybe because of the story,” director Cheuk Wan-chi said about Koo’s performance. “There is a lot of trauma, a lot of life-and-death situations. I think he connected to the story. He actually broke into tears a lot during the shooting. We edited that out because we didn’t want a protagonist who kept crying.”

Filming took place during COVID protocols, adding to the difficulties cast and crew faced.

“During the making of it, during that whole process, can you imagine the pressure?” Koo asked. “Not just financially or physically. We were all wondering, ‘What is the future? What happens to the next generation? How long with this last?'”

The Film Stage: What kind of research did you do for Vital Sign?

Louis Koo: There’s a scene where we’re drilling into a patient’s bone. We clearly couldn’t practice that, but there was a lot of other research. For instance: the bus crash at the climax. I have a friend, an old classmate, who’s now a high-ranking fireman. We turned to him to understand the whole process of trying to save people in that kind of accident.

Emergency workers have long, long hours. They are under so much pressure. Of course in the story we also addressed a huge social issue about emigration. In the past few years it’s become something that a lot of people are contemplating, which makes it all the more urgent.

Is that a sensitive topic for Hong Kong cinema?

Not really. Think of it this way: it’s not just a problem for Hong Kong––it’s a global problem. In the 1980s, how many people moved from Hong Kong to Canada, for example? 

Why do people want to leave their homes? Maybe they want to find a better quality of life. The last time I was in New York was right before 9/11, so over 20 years ago. I have never, ever thought of leaving Hong Kong. My family, my friends, my work––the entire circle, that’s all in Hong Kong. Leaving is not something I’m considering. I’m used to living under very high pressure, so do not think of asking me to retire.

How did COVID affect making Vital Sign?

We were filming right when the pandemic became serious, when the quarantines were beginning. Since the project had started, we decided to continue. But you can imagine the pressure we felt––how conflicted we felt, the worries everyone had. No one knew what was going to happen.

Your previous film, Warriors of Future, was a sci-fi blockbuster that’s among the highest-grossing Hong Kong films ever. 

Warriors of Future is in a genre that Hong Kong has never, ever made. There’s a lot there one wants to discover and invent. What was appealing to me was making something fresh.

Can you talk about your company, One Cool Group?

One Cool Group is a fully functioning studio, with prepping, post-production, training, everything. What we are looking for is new directions in genres, new subjects for the future. 

Photo by Liang Chen.

Are you focusing on younger filmmakers?

It’s not about trying to find young talents because they usually can’t harness the budgets we’re talking about. For example, we are going to shoot Warriors of Future 2 and 3 simultaneously, using IMAX and other technologies. We’re planning an animated prequel as well. And we’re not just focused on Hong Kong; we’re working with global markets.

How involved are you in development?

I read through every script. I give advice, I look at the proposed cast lists, and so on. So I definitely am involved that way. But the thing is––as you can imagine––sometimes you look at these scripts and you realize: “Hey, it’s the same type of story. There’s nothing new.” So I’m constantly looking for and hoping to find things for future audiences, something that will be new in two or three years. That’s really the key for the future.

You’ve appeared in dramas and comedies like Romancing in Thin Air or Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. Will you be making more films like those?

There are not many of these romantic films in Hong Kong now. It seems like that the market was just less interested. That’s been the trend for the last decade: fewer and fewer romcoms.

You’re an outstanding villain in Drug War and the exact opposite in Three, a totally dedicated cop. How do you find a way into characters so far away from your real life? 

I must thank Johnnie To. The thing is: you always think that one has to do research and prepare. Right? Okay, fine. Yes, you might have to prepare to be an ambulance man. But if you are going to be playing a drug addict, you don’t really have to practice by taking drugs. 

My work has to do with the role itself, the character, and how full it is. And then the director––how good the director is. Can he or she actually draw something out of you that you didn’t even know you had to show to the audience?

Your roles are marked by their psychological honesty. Your characters’ behavior always makes sense.

That means the director’s good.

But where do those emotions come from? It’s not just a director pulling them out of you––they have to exist within you first.

I guess an actor is like a mentally ill person. [Laughs] There are so many facets in a person. So the work is like: which facet do I amplify? Which do I minimize? 

There was a fortune-teller, a Nostradamus type, who predicted that 2020 would be the end of the world. This person claimed to be clairvoyant and described visions of big cities without cars or people. 

People said this clairvoyant guy was nuts, but remember we actually had to live through that for three years. The loneliness, the quarantines, being cut off from the rest of the world. The overwhelming fear. Not knowing what the future will bring. So much anxiety. 

Can you imagine these types of feelings? Haven’t we all learned them by now? So when I make a film, I’ll be able to express them then. Which means you can be an actor too.

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