When he sings his romantic ballads in concert, the girls in the audience sway dreamily. And if he pirouettes in the air, swinging a blade in an Asian martial arts (“wuxia”) film, the boys mimic his actions. Chen Kun, 36 but looking much younger, is an all-round star in Chinese entertainment: his is an old-school career, with hard graft at the Film Academy in Beijing. “My family wasn’t rich when I was young, and I had to earn the fees for the school myself. After school, I used to work as a copyist in the town hall and would sing in a pub at Chongqing, my home town”, he tells us in Hong Kong, where he is working on his latest film.
“At the time, my dream was to become a designer; I even had an offer from a European school, but finding the money to go abroad was impossible for me. In the meantime, I had the opportunity to star in a TV series, Love story in Shanghai, so I planned to continue my studies with the earnings from the show. But the series was highly successful, and in 2000 I became famous; after being an actor for ten years, I realised that I had fallen in love with my career as performer”.
Now, Chen (also known as “Aloys”) has numerous awards as best actor under his belt (among the most popular films have been Balzac and the little Chinese seamstress, Let the bullets fly and Painted skin). He often sings the main song in his films’ soundtracks, and together with Jet Li is one of the stars of Flying swords of Dragon gate, the first wuxia to be filmed in 3D and to be planned for Imax. The blockbuster was presented at the latest Berlin film festival and distributed in the United States during the summer. How was it, working on such a complex production set? “Not only do I love wuxia as a genre, as I find it really interesting and imaginative, but in the case of Flying swords, I starred in two different roles. I really enjoyed working on this project with the director, Tsui Hark”.
He belongs to the last generation to have grown up in a family not to have been “moderated” by the 1979 law imposing just one child per couple, the last to be able to enjoy numbers of cousins and nephews, to be addressed as “uncle” or “aunt”. He is the eldest of three brothers, brought up by his mother after the divorce of his parents. The typically career-oriented, egocentric life philosophy of some of his single-child fellow citizens is very different to his own approach: “I felt the responsibility of being the family ‘head’”, he states. “We have remained very united, and all live in the same district in Beijing”. This sense of responsibility goes beyond the call of his genes: like many other leading celebrities, the actor-singer also works as a Unicef ambassador. But without travelling afar: he has chosen to concentrate his energy on disadvantaged children in rural areas in his own country; children with poor schooling or who are victims of abuse. “I want to work with every citizen and parent and give them the means to create a better world for their children”.
We ask him what his fans project on to him, and what is the craziest thing they have done because of their enthusiasm. He pauses, and then answers phlegmatically: “I don’t know what they see in me, but I believe I have a positive influence on their lives. I hope that I am able to be an ever better citizen than I can be an actor”. And asked about any future challenges, he replies simply: “To be a more sincere person, to be the true me”. He feels drawn to Buddhism. The book that has had the greatest influence on him is Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan book of living and dying, and he is passionate too about hiking and camping.
In 2011, he launched a personal charity, Power to go, to encourage people to find inner peace and strength by leaving town and going to explore wilder corners of their country on foot and then pass on their renewed positive energy to their friends. As an initial demonstrative project, he took ten students with him to Tibet, and this year guided 20 office workers in the province of Qinghai.
His style (in private life, when he is not wearing fashionable clothes for red carpets or TV shows) springs from his love for life in the open air: “I like to wear clothes that make me feel comfortable; indeed, I believe comfort to be the founding principle of fashion”. The same approach is apparent in the interior design of his apartment, which is “minimal, with furniture that be moved and re-arranged every so often”. There are items and sculptures in various fine woods, sandalwood above all, in what constitutes a collection begun during filming of a television programme: Chen was playing the part of a person who loved surrounding himself with similar articles, and Chen himself acquired the same enthusiasm as though by osmosis.
L'Uomo Vogue, October 2012 (n. 434)
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