When Johnny To signed on to direct the wistfully romantic Turn Left Turn Right
, the Hong Kong filmmaker knew exactly whom he wanted to play the male lead. In the illustrated novel by Jimmy Liao, from which the new movie is adapted, the protagonist is so estranged from society that he's depicted floating above the city, like a melancholy blimp. When you want someone who practically oozes that kind of ethereal alienation, whom are you going to call?
Answer: Takeshi Kaneshiro, the half-Taiwanese, half-Japanese movie star who, thanks to his protean good looks and versatile acting skills, has become the Asian film industry's Johnny Depp—a quirky, unpredictable leading man capable of seducing audiences no matter how dark or oddball the role. Kaneshiro is "mysterious," says To. "He doesn't belong to Hong Kong, Taiwan or anywhere." Indeed, in his eclectic 10-year career, Kaneshiro—who speaks five languages and has made films in four countries—has trained his chameleon-like talents on a remarkable array of characters. In Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels, he played a mute who rode the carcass of a pig like a cowboy. He made love to an HIV-infected teen in the blockbuster Japanese TV miniseries God Please Give Me More Time. In Returner, he played an orphaned assassin-for-hire, and he was a bowling-addicted stockbroker in another Japanese TV series, Golden Bowl. "I don't let myself follow in anyone else's footsteps," says Kaneshiro, 29. "Let other people do what has been done before. All I want is to do something special."
In life and on film, Kaneshiro has proven impossible to typecast. The son of a Japanese businessman and a Taiwanese homemaker, he grew up in Taipei straddling two cultures. "When I went to Japanese school, everybody told me I was Taiwanese," says Kaneshiro. "But when I hung out in the neighborhood, people told me I was Japanese." School-yard taunts about his parentage were a part of his education, but Kaneshiro soon learned that being an outsider offers certain advantages. Pulled over for speeding in Taipei while still a teenager, he produced his Japanese-school ID card instead of a driver's license (he was too young to drive) and babbled at the cop in Japanese. Taking him for a befuddled foreigner, "the cop just got frustrated and waved me off," Kaneshiro says.
A Taipei artist-management company recruited him to be a pop idol when he was 15; Kaneshiro had the requisite looks but not the drive. "It took us two years to make him realize what he needed to do to be a pop star," says Eva Yao, Kaneshiro's longtime manager. "I would have to explain a lot of things to make him understand why he couldn't smoke or why he had to cooperate." His biggest shortcoming: "I couldn't sing," says Kaneshiro. Still, he endured voice and dance lessons and released Mando-pop albums with titles such as Tenderhearted Superman
. When the time came to parlay his local celebrity into a film career (routine for Taiwan's idol factory), he perversely shunned roles in safe, saccharine vehicles, insisting instead on quirkier character parts. He won acclaim in his second movie for his role as a lovelorn cop in Wong Kar-wai's 1994 cult hit, Chungking Express
A copy of Chungking Express and Wong's followup, Fallen Angels, landed on the desk of Hiroyoshi Koiwai, a producer for Fuji TV. Koiwai wanted to make a miniseries about a musician who falls in love with an HIV-positive high-school girl, but it was a controversial premise, and the lead part was seen as a potential career killer. "No Japanese musician would take the role," Koiwai says. He was going to give up on the idea—until he saw Kaneshiro, who was only too happy to sign on. "I wanted to use actors who were different," Koiwai recalls. "I needed a cool actor." The series, God Please Give Me More Time, sizzled. It drew an astonishing 28.3% of Japan's viewing audience and was even credited with sparking a 62% increase in the number of Japanese getting HIV-aids tests. Kaneshiro followed up in 2000 with his third Japanese movie, the offbeat action-comedy Space Travelers, which broke box-office records in Japan. His latest Japanese movie, Returner, was the top-grossing domestic film last year.
Kaneshiro's ability to act convincingly in several tongues helps explain his pan-Asian appeal. Because the characters of his name are read differently across the region, he's known as Kam Shing-mo in Cantonese, Kin Chengwu in Mandarin and Kim Sung Moo in Korean. "I feel weird sometimes," he says as he sips iced coffee in a secluded hotel café in Tokyo. "When people call me Mr. Kam, I'm like, who is Mr. Kam? Or they call me Mr. Kim, and I have to remind them that I'm not Korean." He admits his shape-shifting attributes, which are a powerful acting tool, may stem from personal rootlessness. He owns two apartments, one in Tokyo and one in Taipei, but says that he's never in either long enough to decorate. "I don't have a sense that I live anywhere," he sighs. By nature, he suggests, he's a fickle character with no fixed center: "My thinking changes all the time. People may read an interview I gave a year before and assume that's who I still am. But usually I've changed altogether." He tried vegetarianism then went back to red meat. He enrolled in a film class at New York University but never completed it. He sought enlightenment through meditation then gave up: "When I try it, nothing happens."
So who is he this month? In Turn Left Turn Right he plays "a normal guy leading a normal, lonely life," says Kaneshiro. Next, he's looking to conquer mainland China. Kaneshiro is scheduled this month to begin closed-set shooting with fabled director Zhang Yimou (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern) in an as-yet-untitled film set in the Tang dynasty. As always, his challenge is to test the boundaries of his craft, making each role fresh and unexpected. "A melody can be made with only a few notes, right? In acting, it's the same," says Kaneshiro. "There are only a limited number of characters and a limited number of ways to play them." He seems determined to hit all the high notes.