The Most Iconic Hong Kong Actors And Actresses—Plus The Best Classic Local Movies Of All Time
With its unique fusion of East and West cultures, bustling neon lights-filled streets and stunning vistas of gleaming skyscrapers, it’s no surprise that our beloved city has been providing a perfect backdrop for countless blockbusters. The early 90s was a golden age for the local film industry, where Hong Kong was once crowned the “Hollywood of the East”, one of Asia’s most prominent movie hubs.
Of course, Hong Kong’s rich cinematic heritage is unquestioned and it remains influential nowadays. The city has been home to a myriad of gifted actors and filmmakers who truly deserve our attention and respect. Here, we’ve put together a list of the most influential Hong Kong actors in history, and some of the must-watch local films that will make you fall in love with this city all over again.
Major works: Behind the Yellow Line (1984), Rouge (1988), Who's the Woman, Who's the Man (1996), Wu Yen (2001), July Rhapsody (2002)
Singing, dancing, acting—is there anything Anita Mui can’t do? People have been calling Mui the “Madonna of Asia” since her debut, and we couldn’t agree more. At just 18 years old, Mui won the first place in TVB’s New Talent Singing Awards with her unique contralto vocals in 1982, and there began her singing career. Mui quickly became one of the most prominent figures on the local music scene, winning awards and releasing chart-topping hits—but her success wasn't limited to music.
Mui had played several memorable characters in romance, comedic and action pieces during her career, and her acting talent was recognised by receiving various awards—including the Best Supporting Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1985 for her role in Behind the Yellow Line, and Golden Horse’s Best Actress award with her performance in Rouge in 1988.
Unfortunately, Mui succumbed to cervical cancer at the age of forty in 2004. It has been over a decade since we lost the legend, but Mui will always be remembered for her powerful stage presence and contributions towards Hong Kong’s entertainment industry.
Watch the official trailer for Rouge (1988) below:
Major works: Rouge (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Farewell My Concubine (1993), Who's The Woman, Who's The Man (1996), Happy Together (1997)
How could we not list Leslie Cheung after Anita Mui? After seeing them together in Stanely Kwan's masterpiece Rouge (1988), it’s hard not to adore the duo and the chemistry between them.
Before 1986, Cheung was known mostly for being a hugely popular teenage heartthrob and one of the pioneers of modern Cantopop, who released and performed tons of unforgettable golden hits such as “The Wind Blows On”, “Monica” and “Who Resonates With Me”. He is also known as one of the first Hong Kong celebrities to come out as gay during a more socially conservative era.
In addition to winning a handful of accolades including the Jade Solid Gold Best Ten Music Awards and the Golden Needle Award, Cheung also shone as an actor. From his breakout role in A Better Tomorrow (1986), to the openly gay characters in Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990) and Happy Together (1997), Cheung surely knows how to handpick scripts that are destined for success.
Dashing, resolute and incredibly talented—these words just perfectly describe Cheung as one of Asia's most iconic celebrities of all time. Even more than a decade after his death by suicide in 2003, he remains as a superstar and queer icon in our hearts, no matter how long he had left us.
Who's The Woman, Who's The Man (1996) is available on Netflix. Watch the official trailer below:
Major works: Behind the Yellow Line (1984), Police Story (1985), Centre Stage (1992), Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996), In the Mood for Love (2000)
One simply cannot discuss the greatest Hong Kong film stars of all time without bringing up Maggie Cheung. She has enchanted countless audience with her captivating presence in over 80 local films during her career, who has an elegant aura that sets her apart from other actresses of her generation.
Before Cheung was the icon of Hong Kong cinema, she was the first runner-up at the 1983 Miss Hong Kong Pageant. The beauty entered the local film industry shortly thereafter, and her character as the long-suffering girlfriend of Jackie Chan in Police Story (1985) has made her famous and went on to star in several commercially successful comedies.
But everything was changed when a role opened up in Wong Kar-wai’s first film, As Tears Go By (1988), where Cheung seized the chance to star alongside Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung. The dramatic role cemented Cheung as a leading actress, where she further proved her versatility in Stanely Kwan's Centre Stage (1992) and some of the other finest works by Wong, including Days of Being Wild (1990) and In the Mood for Love (2000).
After Cheung’s last award-winning performance in Clean (2004), she decided to retire from acting and started pursuing her music career, only making public appearances at award ceremonies and fashion events. Today, the well-loved goddess is still the record-holder for most Best Actress wins at Hong Kong Film Awards and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards.
See also: Where To Find The Best Cheongsams, Or Qipaos In Hong Kong
Watch the official trailer for In The Mood For Love (2000) below:
Tony Leung Chiu-wai
Major works: Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000), Infernal Affairs I & III (2002, 2003), Lust, Caution (2007)
Tony Leung Chiu-wai has long been one of Hong Kong’s most acclaimed actors since he began acting in 1981. If you’ve never seen Leung’s breakthrough performance in action film Hard Boiled (1992), where he co-starred alongside Chow Yun-fat, make sure you do. Leung’s role as an undercover cop is truly unforgettable—just like many of his best movies.
While Leung’s long-standing collaboration with director Wong Kar-wai has made him a household name, his outstanding performances in the Infernal Affairs film series and Ang Lee’s controversial work Lust, Caution (2007) are not to be missed. With a prestigious reputation and multiple international awards, including the Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for In the Mood For Love (2000) under his belt, Leung also holds the record for most Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Actor.
The one thing he hasn’t accomplished yet? Making his debut in Hollywood. The local film legend will be joining Marvel Cinematic Universe, playing a villain role—the Mandarin—in Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, which is set to come out this year. We just can’t wait to see Leung’s next big project.
Infernal Affairs trilogy is available on Netflix. Watch the official trailer for Infernal Affairs (2002) below:
See also: 9 New Movies To Watch Now That Cinemas Are Open In Hong Kong
Major works: Fight Back to School (1991), From Beijing With Love (1994), A Chinese Odyssey Part One: Pandora’s Box (1995), Sholin Soccer (2001), Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
King of comedy—Stephen Chow—wears multiple hats in the local film industry. He’s an actor, director, filmmaker and martial artist, who has been Hong Kong’s one of the biggest comedy superstars since he began acting in 1988.
In fact, Chow’s very first movie—Final Justice (1988)—is an action film rather than a comedy. His dramatic role as a car thief had earned him recognition as the Best Supporting Actor at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards, who quickly rose to prominence with his comedic performances in various domestic blockbusters afterwards—including All for the Winner (1990), All’s Well, Ends Well (1992) and Fight Back to School (1991).
In 1993, Chow further dominated the comedy genre on-screen by shifting his attention to directing. Whether it’s the parody of 007 spy thriller, From Beijing With Love (1994), or award-winning sports comedy Shaolin Soccer (2001) and family film CJ7 (2008), one can never deny Chow’s contribution to the film industry. His performances and works will be always enjoyed as classics, bringing joy and laughter to audiences from time to time.
Most of Stephen Chow's movies are available on Netflix. Watch the official trailer for Fight Back to School (1991) below:
Major works: A Better Tomorrow series (1986, 1987, 1989), An Autumn’s Tale (1987), City on Fire (1988), All About Ah-Long (1990), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Having appeared in over 100 films and 20 television series, Chow Yun-fat is one of the most prolific, respected actors of his generation. After making a name for himself on TVB with the television series The Bund (1980) on TVB, Chow continued to pursue his dream of being an actor on the silver screen and collaborated with director John Woo in blockbuster A Better Tomorrow (1986).
The movie won Chow the first Best Actor award at the Hong Kong Film Awards and he started his rapid climb to fame with his trustworthy, brave character as portrayed in other top-grossing action films such as The Killer (1989), Hard Boiled (1992) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
Chow might be best known for his great performances in Hong Kong’s unique heroic bloodshed film genre, but let's not forget his roles in the award-winning comedy Love in a Fallen City (1984) and the romantic movie An Autumn’s Tale (1987). The charismatic actor is indeed a chameleon on screen.
See also: 5 Must-Visit Hong Kong Sites For A Glimpse Of The City's History
Better Tomorrow (1986) is available on Netflix. Watch the official trailer below:
Major Works: Flash Point (2007), Ip Man series (2008, 2010, 2015, 2018, 2019), The Lost Bladesman (2011)
A roundup of the most iconic actors in Hong Kong would be remiss without mentioning Donnie Yen, the quintessential action star who’s known for his impressive martial arts skills and stellar acting skills. After making his onscreen debut with action film Drunken Tai Chi (1984), Yen had his breakthrough came as General Nap-lan in Once Upon a Time in China II (1992), which included a fight scene between his role and Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li). Lauded for his strength and solid martial art abilities, Yen was given more opportunities to perform and deliver consistently thrilling fight scenes in both movies and television series in the late 90s.
He had already become a recognisable face in the local action movie scene before he turned his eye toward directing in the early 2000s, but his directorial debut with Legend of the Wolf (1997) wasn’t about cementing his star status. Rather, in Hollywood films such as Highlander: Endgame (2000), Blade II (2002) and Flash Point (2007) Yen demonstrated his well-honed fight choreographic skills and dramatic performances, whose talent was recognised with a number of awards, including Best Action Choreography at both Hong Kong Film Awards and Golden Horse Awards. He then enjoyed local and international mainstream success with the hugely popular Ip Man film series, where he plays a grandmaster of martial art wing chun and teacher of Bruce Lee.
Ip Man film series is available on Netflix. Watch the official trailers below
See also: Leading Man: Hong Kong Martial-Arts Star Donnie Yen Reflects On His Career And Talks About Leaving A Legacy
Major works: As Tears Go By (1988), A Fighter Blues (2000), Infernal Affairs I & III (2002, 2003), Running on Karma (2003), A Simple Life (2011)
It’s impossible to gauge whether Andy Lau is a better singer or actor. Over the span of his 40-year career, Lau has appeared in over 160 films, collecting countless nominations and over 200 awards both for acting and singing. He is also one of the “Four Heavenly Kings” of Cantopop during the 1990s in Hong Kong, along with Jacky Cheung, Leon Lai and Aaron Kwok.
Lau’s success and ambitions can be traced all the way back to the mid-1980s when he started his acting career at TVB, playing leading roles in classic television series—The Emissary (1982) and The Return of the Condor Heroes (1983). These dramas made him a household name, and he began to focus on his film and music careers over the years.
In addition to his unforgettable performances in A Fighter’s Blues (2000) and Infernal Affairs III (2003), where Lau won his first Golden Bauhinia Award for Best Actor and Golden Horse Award for Best Leading Actor, the superstar also took part in film production. From drama film Made in Hong Kong (1997) to moving melodrama A Simple Life (2011) and action thriller Firestorm (2013), there’s seriously something for everyone on Lau’s profile.
Firestorm (2013) is available on Netflix. Watch the official trailer below:
See also: 14 Great Hong Kong Movies To Add To Your Netflix Watch List
This article was originally published on 13 February, 2020 and was updated on 31 March, 2021.