One of Hong Kong’s Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop, Aaron Kwok was never supposed to be a great actor. Attending the TVB Training School for Dance in 1984, a few years later he switched to the Acting Program and appeared in television series like TVB’s 1987 Genghis Khan. He was just another young guy with a nice face and some dancing skills when a 1990 Taiwanese television commercial for Honda motorcycles he appeared in caught the attention of casting directors, and suddenly Aaron was on fire.

His slick dance moves helped make his first three albums (released in 1990 and 1991) charttopping hits, and he signed with Warner Music, before winning two back-to-back music awards in 1991 (the Jade Solid Gold Top 10 Award and the RTHK Top 10 Gold Songs Award). Over the next 20 years, he won dozens of awards, staged worldwide sold-out concerts, and released numerous albums at a breakneck pace. But, as he says, “There were many layers of packaging…The record company gave you an image to do your job. They’re extremely protective. They made you think that your image is very important; it’s so firmly linked to your work that the two simply couldn’t be separated.”

As the 90’s passed, Aaron was getting some recognition for his acting, and his strong physicality was attracting attention (in 1991 everyone was surprised when he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his role as a villain with no lines in Savior of the Soul) but he was desperate to break through to the next level. “From 1990 to 2000 was one stage,” he said in an interview. “For the following decade, I hoped to find something in movies that better matches my thoughts, my level of maturity and my work ethic.”

He reduced the time he spent promoting his albums, reduced the rate at which he recorded them (getting it down to one a year by 2003), and focused on acting. He had already appeared in some iconic films, co-starring in The Storm Riders (1998), one of Hong Kong’s all-time biggest hits, he’d appeared in two films directed by Johnnie To (The Barefooted Kid and Throwdown), and several romances, but it was when he met production designer William Chang on 2005’s action movie, Divergence, that he found what he was looking for. Chang is not only an editor and costume designer, but he’s inarguably Hong Kong’s most influential production designer, collaborating constantly with both Wong Kar-wai and Tsui Hark. For Divergence he insisted that Kwok be filmed with no make-up, unshaven, unkempt, and in clothes that didn’t fit. It was a revelation for the actor, and he won Best Actor at the Golden Horse Awards for his performance.

The following year, he worked with acclaimed New Wave director Patrick Tam on After This Our Exile, and won another Golden Horse for Best Actor, a back-to-back victory only Jackie Chan had ever previously achieved. In Exile, Kwok fearlessly portrayed a gambling addict, showing a complete lack of vanity and commitment to his craft, and blew audiences away. Aaron Kwok 2.0 was unleashed, and he seemed unstoppable, following up with a series of startling performances in films like Yim Ho’s Floating City, the blockbuster Cold War, and his latest tour de force, Port of Call. It’s for his constant commitment to excellence that the New York Asian Film Festival gives him the Star Asia Award.