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Actor discovers his leading role

Former heartthrob singer tunes into movies with style and grace, Xu Fan reports.

By Xu Fan | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-07 05:53
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Phillips attends events during the Beijing International Film Festival, as a jury member for its Tiantan Award. [Photo provided to China Daily]

In late April, a gentle breeze swept across the serene landscape of Yanqi Lake, nestled on the northern outskirts of Beijing. Despite the picturesque view from his hotel room window, Kris Phillips, who is better known as Fei Xiang in China, had just had a hectic week that contrasted sharply with the tranquillity outside.

As a jury member for the 14th Beijing International Film Festival's Tiantan Award, the Chinese-American singer and actor viewed the 15 shortlisted films competing for honors and attended multiple news conferences over the course of a tight 12-day schedule.

Describing himself as a movie lover who re-watched golden era Hollywood films, like those starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, to prepare for his new comedy Out of Order, the 63-year-old star says he was fascinated by the opportunity to admire movies from a variety of countries, including Argentina and Israel.

"I think film offers us a window into other people's lives. That's what we want. China has a huge amount of potential in this regard," he tells China Daily. "I feel like the Chinese film industry is now at a fascinating moment and entering a golden period of filmmaking. It's going to be like America between the 1970s and 1980s, a period when there was a huge expansion of talent, and dedication to film as an art form."

For Chinese people born in the 1970s and '80s, Phillips was the pop king of their era.

After graduating from Stanford University, the performer, who has an American father and a Chinese mother, returned to Taiwan and began his showbiz career in the TV series Eleven Women, paving his way to stardom as a heartthrob in several movies adapted from novels by Chiung Yao, a well-known romance novelist from Taiwan.

However, it was his musical talent — exemplified by the release of a series of albums and a successful tour of 60 sold-out concerts — that catapulted Phillips to fame for millions of fans in the Chinese mainland following his dynamic and charismatic performance of the song, Dongtian Lide Yibahuo (Ball of Fire), at China Central Television's 1987 Spring Festival Gala.

Reflecting on his early years, and seemingly experiencing a nostalgic moment, Phillips says that he believed he lacked the experience to excel as an actor at the time, and questioned whether he wanted to settle for being an average actor, or strive to become a top-notch pop singer.

"When I saw my (early) films, I said to myself, 'Well, I'd better just stick to singing.' That was my reaction. And that's exactly what I did. I pulled the plug on my film work. I released album after album, did concerts, and performed in theaters in America," he says.

Over the following two decades, he dedicated himself to music, establishing a presence in the United States despite the then challenging environment for Asian performers, through a series of high-profile performances, beginning with his role in the original Broadway cast of Miss Saigon, and culminating in appearing in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Music of the Night.

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