Ultimately, it comes down to his mouth.
Chow Yun-Fat is the coolest movie actor in the world today, and the only way I can explain this is to talk about his mouth. He does cool things with his mouth. Smoking cigarettes is no longer an emblem of cool in the USA, but Chow does wonders with cigarette smoke in Prison On Fire. Director Ringo Lam understands this; like most of the great Hong Kong directors, he loves using slow motion and freeze frames to pinpoint important moments in his movies, and he saves a few of the most elegant slow-motion sequences for Chow blowing smoke and looking cool.
In John Woo's over-the-top classic, Hard Boiled (the rough literal translation of the Chinese title is Spicy-Handed Gun God), Chow plays with a toothpick. There are few movie moments more violently cool than the shot of Chow, a gun in each hand, sliding down a stair banister blasting a dozen bad guys while letting his toothpick hang just so from the side of his mouth. In God of Gamblers, Chow plays a gambler who gets a bump on his head that turns him into some quasi- autistic prodigy, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Chow retains his intuitive skill at playing cards, but now he must be pacified by constant pieces of chocolate that he scarfs greedily, goofy smile on his face. Blowing smoke, dangling his toothpick, eating chocolate, or just smiling ... ultimately, when trying to explain why Chow Yun-Fat is cool, it comes down to his mouth.
Everything I have said so far describes a subjective reaction to watching Chow Yun-Fat on the screen. Fill in the name of your favorite actor or actress, change the specific references, and this could be your essay. We don't learn anything new from such subjective meanderings; we only identify taste preferences. I'm proud to be a Chow fan, but then, I am proud to be a fan in general. With other favorites of mine, though, I am able to get at least a little bit beyond subjectivity. Be it Murphy Brown or X-Ray Spex, Bruce Springsteen or NYPD Blue, at some point I can analyze my relationship to the cultural artifact in question, place it in some cultural context, and come to some hopefully useful conclusions about both the particular text and our interaction with that text. Chow Yun-Fat, however, seems to defy my attempts at analysis; ultimately, it all comes down to his mouth and nothing more.
Try describing Chow Yun-Fat to someone who has never seen him on the screen. Comparisons sometimes help, so how about this: Chow Yun-Fat is the Asian Cary Grant. He makes everything look easy; there are always other actors chewing the scenery in Chow's movies, but he rarely goes for the obvious and the overdone, preferring the smile and the toothpick. He looks good in a tuxedo; he looks good in an expensive silk suit; he looks good with nothing on at all. And it all seems so effortless.
Cary Grant, but there is more: in one scene from Prison on Fire, Chow is Cary Grant taking a dump. He's gotta go pretty badly, he's shitting and farting and talking to a fellow inmate, all at the same time, he's waving away the smell and sending looks of displeasure to his stomach, finally he's asking his friend to leave the room, because Chow can't 'do it' if someone is watching. And yes, through it all, Chow is cool. Cary Grant taking a dump.
Cary Grant taking a dump, but there is more: in film after film, Chow is the object of desire for men. In Ringo Lam movies, this is often overt; in Full Contact the main villain is a gay mobster with a hard-on for Chow, and somehow his gayness is a positive aspect of his character, unlike so many American action films where gay means psychopathic or neurotic or evil. His gayness is positive because he obsesses over Chow Yun-Fat; it is hard to find fault with anyone who merely recognizes what Chow fans know in their own subjective worlds, that Chow Yun-Fat is the coolest. At the end of Full Contact, with the villain about to...