Making the Great Leap

When Takeshi Kaneshiro closes his eyes and drifts off to sleep, he dreams in Japanese. Usually. "It depends on the people in the dream," says the actor, 32. Born in Taipei to a Chinese mother and a Japanese father, he spoke the Taiwanese dialect as his first language. Growing up, he conversed mainly in Japanese and Mandarin, but he's also fluent in Cantonese and English. He lives in Taiwan but travels on a Japanese passport and makes Hong Kong, mainland-Chinese and Japanese films.

No wonder Kaneshiro is an Asian star like no other. Also known as Gum Sing-mo in Cantonese and Jin Chengwu in Mandarin, he combines well-honed dramatic skills; a classic, refined handsomeness, and the versatile appeal necessary to lure filmgoers throughout the vast region into cinemas--despite easy access to pirated DVDs. Now, in the new Chinese musical "Perhaps Love," Kaneshiro delivers a striking performance in a film that should appeal to a broader audience abroad, where moviegoers have grown more accustomed to lavishly filmed martial-arts epics. The film, which broke box-office records in China when it opened in early December, is Hong Kong's bet for a 2006 foreign-language-film Academy Award nomination.

In "Perhaps Love," Kaneshiro draws on his beginnings as a pop-music idol to play Lin Jiandong, an actor tortured by love. Lin finds himself in contemporary Shanghai working on a glamorous picture with the woman who left him a decade earlier to pursue stardom. The actress, played by China's brilliant Zhou Xun ( "Baober in Love," "The Little Chinese Seamstress"), is sleeping with the director (Hong Kong's Jacky Cheung Hok-yau). The tale of passion unfolds through song-and-dance numbers that range from high drama to sheer opulence.

Produced by American Andre Morgan, who made "Million Dollar Baby," the unusual project appealed to Kaneshiro in large part for the opportunity to work with Hong Kong director Peter Chan Ho-sun ("The Love Letter"), whom he considers one of the best in Asia. He's also often been drawn to love stories. "Love--or hate--you cannot escape from these," he says. He made a name for himself playing a lovelorn Hong Kong cop in "Chungking Express" (1994), directed by auteur Wong Kar-wai, whom Kaneshiro credits with helping him make the leap from singing to acting. After establishing himself in Chinese show business, he broke into the Japanese market by starring in several popular TV serials, then doing films like 1998's "Misty," a remake of Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon." Most recently he received top billing in "The House of Flying Daggers," Zhang Yimou's martial-arts film that was nominated last year for a foreign-language Golden Globe award. But he considers himself essentially a dramatic actor. "I am not a martial-arts actor," he says. "I'll never be Jackie Chan [or] Jet Li."

While mainstream Western audiences have embraced such action stars, they have been slower to accept Asia's dramatic actors as leading men. Kaneshiro could change that. In 1998 he made the small, obscure U.S. picture "Too Tired to Die," with Mira Sorvino, and is constantly being courted by Hollywood directors.

But for now, Kaneshiro remains cautious about Hollywood. Though his English is excellent, he says he finds speaking it "weird" and is reluctant to take on other English-speaking roles. Furthermore, he thinks Hollywood still has a way to go in creating complex and believable Asian characters. "Most of the time, when Asians are in Hollywood movies, the part that they can get is very stereotyped," he says. "I never felt interested." But that doesn't mean he never will. "I have read some scripts, and I think the style is changing because they want to go to China. They are fixing things. I think it's good for the actors--the range of characters in the movies is larger than before. So we'll see."

Outside of his impressive filmography, Kaneshiro's private life remains private, the way he likes it. He describes himself as a regular guy who likes to "go out with friends and family, drink, watch movies, read books." He favors philosophy, classical Chinese literature and manga, Japanese illustrated novels. Kaneshiro rarely gives interviews because, he claims, he doesn't know what to say. If anything, the mystery surrounding him has made him more appealing to his fans, says Hong Kong-based actress, independ-ent filmmaker and script-writer Silvia Chang Aichia. Chang, who cast Kaneshiro as the leading man in her acclaimed 1999 movie "Tempting Heart," says: "He has a star quality that I haven't seen in anybody else. He's good-looking, charming, he can act--and it all comes out on screen."

Indeed, Jacky Cheung's grand scenes and rich vocals may dominate "Perhaps Love." But it is Kaneshiro's Lin who touches hearts and makes audiences swoon. Now it's only a matter of time before the rest of the world falls in love with him.