Fast life in the slow lane
Smartly dressed, well mannered and armed with a positive attitude, BabyJohn Choi Hon-yik embraces his career in front of the camera. The fast-paced life of an actor consumes him on set, yet he candidly admits taking a laid-back approach towards life and appreciates old-fashioned values, writes Artemis Lam.
“Every movie, every role is a new excitement for me,” says 30-year-od BabyJohn Choi Hon-yik. Playing Tim Cheung in his latest film Vampire Cleanup Department, BabyJohn calls it an “absolutely unforgettable experience.” Vampire Cleanup Department, which was released in March, tells the story of vampires haunting Hong Kong and the people charged in keeping them under control. “Tim [BabyJohn’s character] is at first a nerdy geek looking for work after graduation, at a loss and with no idea about his future,” the actor says. “By chance he gets recruited by the cleanup department and finds he has special skills in tackling the night-dwelling vampires. He turns out not only a supreme vampire hunter, but also a hero who shows sympathy for some of his prey, particularly a beautiful young denizen of the night. Not until I studied the script, did I see it representing the feeling of loss and confusion in today’s young generation. It gives me an opportunity to live somebody else’s life!”
With a nod to the horror comedies of the 1980s, Vampire Cleanup Department demanded plenty of action scenes from BabyJohn. “I am really grateful to [fellow actor] Chin Siu-Ho, who was sifu [mentor] to me in and out of this movie. He taught me martial arts; to fight well and how to do it aesthetically for the screen. Injuries are inevitable, but I really enjoyed it!” The neophyte action star says he has always thought about playing a movie action hero, and that could signal a new direction in his career.
The supernatural horror comedy, with its whirlwind action intertwined with romance, carries a deeper meaning, BabyJohn says. “Tim represents an ordinary millennial. He is uncertain of his own value and has no clue what is in store for him. He reaches a breakthrough when he starts to understand himself and his unusual abilities. This gives him the impetus for change – to transform into something more meaningful, significant, warm … He epitomises millennials and Hong Kong itself, as we all are waiting for that opportunity to change.”
If he’s not yet a household name, BabyJohn is definitely heading in that direction. He won Best New Performer award at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2014, and picked up a gong at the Hong Kong Directors’ Guild Awards for The Way We Dance (2013). “It all happened so quickly,” he recalls. This recognition has earned him new opportunities, including a voice part in the animated movie McDull: Me & My Mum (2014), and lead roles in Ip Mun 3 (2015) and Kill Zone 2 (2015).
This year, in addition to the vampire movie, BabyJohn also performs in a yet-to-be-released action movie Shock Wave, produced by and starring Andy Lau.
“I ready admire Andy Lau, he pays attention to every detail, cares about everyone, everything; and he shares his experience and skills with us. Even though I am just a small character in the movie, Andy demonstrates to me how to act my part out, I am really really impressed!” BabyJohn’s excitement from that encounter is still palpable.
In Shock Wave, BabyJohn plays a police officer who has a bomb attached to his body by criminals. “The tough part is my character’s emotions. I am frightened, shocked, crying. I become desperate after the bomb disposal crew tells me that the bomb cannot be removed. So it’s the worst-case scenario and I have to stay away from the crowds. I keep repeating to myself ‘I am a police officer … I am a police officer …’, trying to control myself from breaking down. I wait to die gloriously. Finally, the bomb explodes. It’s a short but a forceful moment.”
BabyJohn is very passionate about acting and has been interested in the profession since he was young. He made his acting debut at 13 as the character Baby John in the musical West Side Story at his school. He was so taken by the role that he decided to keep the name for himself. He had his first setback when he applied to study at the Academy for Performing Arts – the application period had expired and he had to wait for another year to apply. Demonstrating the enthusiasm and determination that has epitomized his career, BabyJohn was admitted to the academy and awarded two scholarships.
He always wanted to be an actor without being concerned how big or small the role was. After his graduation from the academy in 2009, he became a contract actor with the Chung Ying Theatre. Yet he could not quench his thirst for movie acting with theatre, so he quit. “The stage is good training for the big screen. It requires an instant response and communication with the audience. But it is different, I have to repeat the performance every day and maintain the enjoyment at a similar level.
“The movie business is ever-changing, with different directors, different crews and actors. The chemistry can be electrifying. Experienced directors might provide a full storyboard of various scenes, and give me detailed instructions on how to act out the story. I can learn a lot in a short time. While new directors work in different styles; they share their ideas and brainstorm with us to get our opinions as a way to enrich the story. This way I am more involved in the making of the movies I act in.”
BabyJohn recalls working with famous director Ann Hui on a bank advertisement. “I admire her so much and I even asked if we could develop a long-term relationship … for work of course! I also want to say something like that to Andy Lau,” he chuckles.
When asked to describe himself, BabyJohn picks three otherwise unrelated adjectives – slow, curious and competitive. “I enjoy slow living, I don’t want to rush to finish something. I enjoy the process. I am learning chado, the Japanese tea ceremony. I like the spirit and essence of being involved and living the experience. I’m thinking about taking a year off making movies and focus on learning chado.”
It’s little wonder, then, that BabyJohn’s favourite place is the cultural Japanese city of Kyoto. “Kyoto is a wonderful place and a great for me to shop for traditional teaware. I like Japan, but it’s more about the peaceful, natural charm and quietness rather than modern hustle and bustle. I am not a big fan of Tokyo.
“Yet, I am a pretty curious guy. I guess that’s why I’m always looking to see and learn new and different things. And … I am competitive, I mean, I don’t like to lose, I like victory. Maybe that’s why I work hard,” BabyJohn says.
Working hard is indeed a virtue. “True, I like the old-fashioned virtues. My grandma, my mom’s mother, taught me a lot. She and grandpa are the most influential people in my life. When I was small, both my parents went out to work to support the family and my grandparents took care of me. Grandma believes in the old values, like being kind and friendly to your neighbours; working more or putting in more effort is the way to gain more experience, which benefits my future. Grandma is the one who shows me the advantage of slow living.”