Source: Newsweek, February 24, 2003, Atlantic Edition Author: Alexandra A. Seno
Tony Leung's emotional performances earn raves
Tony Leung Chiu-wai is stuck in traffic. It is the height of the evening rush hour, and the Hong Kong actor is trying to reach the offices of Wong Kar-wai, who is directing him in the mysterious "2046," a film with no script. Leung won't receive his marching orders until he arrives at Wong's office: if the director says they're filming, the actors and crew will head for the latest secret location, where they might work until dawn. If not, they'll all just hang out. That is Wong's way, and Leung is used to it; "2046" is their fifth movie together. "Kar-wai is very demanding, and we never have a real script," says Leung. "[But he] challenges me. He is always pushing me to go deeper, to become that person. I like it."
Moviegoers and critics like it, too. The expressive but unassuming actor is winning worldwide notice with strong, quietly emotional performances, like his turn as a tormented pimp in "Cyclo." With the last film he and Wong made together, the 2000 art-house hit "In the Mood for Love," Leung took the best-actor prize at Cannes for his measured portrayal of a Chinese newspaper editor who discovers his wife's infidelity. If Wong completes "2046" by the April deadline, it is expected to be a contender at Cannes this year--and to feature another memorable performance by Leung.
The 40-year-old actor works well with other directors, too. In Zhang Yimou's latest epic "Hero," which has been nominated for a best-foreign-film Oscar this year, Leung plays a determined Qin-dynasty assassin. And he humanized the role of a psychologically damaged undercover agent in Andrew Lau Wai-keung's cop thriller "Infernal Affairs," which was Hong Kong's top-grossing film in 2002. "In Chinese films today, Tony Leung Chiu-wai is very important," says Hong Kong scriptwriter Alan Lee Kam-lun. "If it is a difficult, dramatic character, producers first think of him."
The actor's gravitas sets him apart from all the pretty boys, action heroes and slapstick comedians who dominate contemporary Chinese cinema. Indeed, Tony Leung Chiu-wai--not to be confused with Tony Leung Ka-fai, who starred in "The Lover"--may be the most serious actor of his generation. He has fan clubs all over Asia, and a devoted following among the foreign-film crowd in the West. "Leung Chiu-wai is No. 1 among Chinese actors," says Leung Tak-man, a popular entertainment radio-show host. "Girls like his style. Guys feel they grew up with him. He's just a regular guy."
In person, Leung certainly comes off that way. His voice is tentative and his body language cautious. "I'm not a very confident person," he says. He was born to a middle-class family in Hong Kong, but his mother raised him and his younger sister alone after his father abandoned them. "I was embarrassed to come from a broken family," he says. In school, Leung tried not to talk too much in case anyone asked about his father. But it was this sense of self-consciousness--and the powerful desire to become someone else--that drew him to an acting career.
That career began on a TV drama more than 20 years ago. His first movie, "Mad Mad 83," was forgettable, but eventually his loyal TV following and his reputation for versatility helped him gain recognition on the silver screen. It was only after he started collaborating with Wong Kar-wai in 1990, however, that his stature began to grow beyond Asia.
As far as Leung is concerned, celebrity has plenty of drawbacks. A bachelor, he is constantly hounded by the voracious Hong Kong paparazzi; photos of Leung eating out regularly make the tabloids. "The local press makes me feel like a criminal," he says. "I am always followed." Does Leung have Hollywood aspirations, given the success of actors like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh? Leung's English is much better than Chan's or Chow's. "We get so many offers," says his manager, Jacky Pang. "If we kept all the scripts sent for Tony to look at, it would fill more than one room." None has interested Leung--though he says he wouldn't mind collaborating with Pedro Almodovar or Martin Scorsese.
For now, he just wants to get to work. "I like acting because I like to live in a dream world," he says, as his van inches along. When a film wraps up, he says he grieves because it's like saying goodbye to a friend he might never see again. It took him a year and a half to get over his "In the Mood" character. No wonder he jumped at the chance to play a feng shui master in the comedy "My Lucky Star," which opened in Hong Kong last month. "Sometimes you just want to be happy," he says. And fortunately for moviegoers around the world, sometimes he doesn't.