Massive movie star Tony Leung—aka Tony Leung Chiu-Wai—could be the Marcello Mastroianni of modern Asian cinema. As the late Italian actor was for Federico Fellini, the heavy-browed, open-faced Leung is a reliable alter ego for master director Wong Kar-Wai. He stars in their latest joint effort, The Grandmaster, a loose but grandly art-directed biography of Yip Man, a kung-fu giant responsible for teaching Bruce Lee and other martial-arts greats.
The film, which opens here Friday (August 30), is Leung’s seventh collaboration with Wong—not counting the latter’s direction of Leung’s wedding to Hong Kong star Carina Lau, at a lavish ceremony in Bhutan. (Lau has also acted for Wong, alongside her husband, in such films as Days of Being Wild and the mysterious 2046.)
“My relationship with Wong Kar-Wai is very strange,” admits Leung, in a phone call from Los Angeles. “We have known each other for 20 years, but we seldom hang out. We seldom talk on set, either. I don’t know why, but we just connect. When he shows me a book he wants to turn into a movie, I already know his feelings about it. I can picture the colour, the movement, the stillness he wants. We rarely talk, and yet I feel I know him very well, in some ways. He’s more than just a friend; he’s a kind of soul mate.”
A native Cantonese speaker relatively fluent in Mandarin, English, and Spanish, the HK–born star began acting at age 20. Along the way, he has played cops, crooks, blind swordsmen, and smouldering lovers. He’s done plenty of movies and lots of Hong Kong TV alongside charismatic Maggie Cheung—someone he calls “another alter ego”. And Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Zhang Ziyi is his romantic foil in the new film, which mostly takes place in 1930s China, with some flashes to Hong Kong after the war.
His work for Wong, opposite Cheung, in the sexy, super-stylish In the Mood for Love won him the top acting prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. Leung says his own screen appeal is something he can never fully grasp.
“It is not something I purposely design. Through learning each role and crafting the character—and here, with all the kung-fu practice—these things just grow spontaneously. It’s just something inside me, and I don’t know how or even why I express that.”
That enigmatic quality is something Wong draws on, judging from the actor’s analysis.
“I think this is why he explains so little at the beginning of each movie. I always believe that Kar-Wai has a complete script: he just doesn’t show it to us. He wants us to experience and explore the character. He gives you a lot of space, and you know every time will be a very long journey. You just live in the character, and that’s very different from other directors.”
Leung has starred in many more titles, among them Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, John Woo’s Hard Boiled, and his breakthrough, A City of Sadness, from Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien. (While anchoring the popular Infernal Affairs series, Leung even sang the theme song to one of the films.) Every auteur has his own style, and a unique way of relating to actors.
“Ang Lee is very precise. He will show you everything, and will let you know whatever he is thinking about the whole project. There are a lot of rehearsals before shooting, and you already reach a certain standard; then he will ask for more. Kar-Wai just asks for a feeling, and a feeling can be hard to catch. John Woo is a very nice and kind person; he gives almost no direction at all, trusting me to come up with the character. But when I think of him, I think of explosions!”
Given all this hands-on experience with such varied masters, doesn’t Leung want to be his own alter ego and jump behind the camera himself?
“No,” he says, after a thoughtful chuckle. “After working with all these great directors, I know I can’t do anything better than them. I’m much better off as an actor!”