Source: The Sunday Times, 29 February 2004 Author: Ryan Gilbey
He's a megastar in Hong Kong, and his new film, Infernal Affairs, is set for a Scorsese remake. So why does Tony Leung just want to be ignored, asks RYAN GILBEY
Q & A (Questions & Answers):
The Chinese thriller Infernal Affairs, which has just opened in Britain, deserves to be celebrated for a number of reasons. When it was released in Hong Kong in late 2002, its success gave an unexpected boost to the city's down-in-the-dumps movie industry. A prequel and a sequel quickly followed, while Martin Scorsese is slated to direct the US remake.
The film also rescues the modern policier from the heavy hands of Michael Mann.
This tale of two moles - a gangster posing as a cop, and a cop who has infiltrated the Triads - is not only half the length of Heat, it also gets the job done with more panache and less brooding.
The best reason to see Infernal Affairs, however, is to bask in the charms of its dynamic star, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who has been one of Asian cinema's most prized and popular actors for more than a decade. On screen, in films such as In the Mood for Love and Happy Together, he has an authentic hint of the matinee idol about him. In person, on a drab Sunday in a London hotel suite, he is more transparently vulnerable, though he still exudes charisma and classiness, even in a white jumper and baggy blue jeans. He has brown, soulful eyes and betrays no sign of having just stepped off the red-eye from Hong Kong, nor of being 41. A feathery moustache that could be sneezed away suggests a boy trying to pass for a man.
For Infernal Affairs, in which he plays the cop who has sacrificed a decade of his life to pass as a Triad member, Leung resolved to stay in the shadows.
"Originally, I wanted to make him wear a smile," he explains softly, "because undercover characters are usually sad and tense. But that didn't work.
So I decided to be as flat as I could." He has played an undercover cop before, in John Woo's Hard Boiled, where he was called upon to snarl and dodge bullets. "In that film, you could see me acting," he says. "Here, I tried just to be quiet." It was a wise move. His most affecting moments in Infernal Affairs occur when he seems to be doing nothing much, such as his clandestine salute to a police funeral procession. "Yeah, yeah, I like that scene too," he enthuses, sounding like one of his own excitable fans.
About the Infernal Affairs phenomenon, he is less enthusiastic. A restaurant named after the film opened recently in Hong Kong, while a press campaign urged audiences to see the movie in order to express their love for the city. There is a protracted silence when I ask him about the sequels. Eventually, he murmurs that Part 2, in which he does not appear, is "not bad", while Part 3, in which he does, is "quite complicated". I don't think those quotes will make it onto the posters.
Possibly, the trilogy feels like old news to him. His most pressing obligation is currently to 2046, the futuristic new film by the brilliant and febrile auteur Wong Kar Wai. The pair have made six movies together, beginning with Days of Being Wild in 1991, but when I joke that Leung belongs to Wong, he gently corrects me. "We belong to each other," he smiles. He seems energised by their relationship, despite the fact that Wong's exhausting productions typically begin without a script and can spill over into many months - or longer in the case of 2046, which has been shooting erratically for four years now.
The movie has been described by Wong as a love story between humans and androids, with elements of Carmen and Madam Butterfly. Perhaps we should take that with a fistful of salt - after all, as Leung explains, the director quite happily misleads his own actors.
"When we were making In the Mood for Love, I asked him, 'What is this about?' He told me, 'It's a story of terrible revenge. You are seeking revenge on this woman because her husband stole your wife.'" If you have seen the finished film, you will know that this is like describing The Seventh Seal as a frat-house comedy. "I certainly didn't see any revenge in there," giggles Leung. On the contrary, it is a tentative love story that manages, even at its most profound, to feel gossamer-light.
Wong is clearly a demanding film-maker - Leung admits to having "run out of batteries", while crew members on his films refer to "the casualty list" instead of the cast list. But no other director has better exploited Leung's melancholy mixture of confidence and fragility. Wong cast him as a lovelorn cop in Chungking Express; as the heartbroken gay doorman at an Argentinian tango club in Happy Together, a kind of Last Tango in Buenos Aires; and as the cuckold, suited and booted but crying on the inside, who finds himself unexpectedly In the Mood for Love.
The conflicts in Leung's on-screen persona have some basis in real life. He was, he tells me, a naughty, rambunctious child until his father walked out. Then, at the age of six, he withdrew into himself, becoming especially prickly whenever the topic of family life was raised at school. "I suppressed my emotions for so long," he says. "I used to talk to the mirror. I was very much like my character in Chungking Express. I had nobody else to confide in, and I didn't want to look weak, so I saved all my problems for that mirror." A bright spot came in the form of his weekly trips to the cinema. "My mother's family were big movie fans," he says. "We'd go every Sunday, 12 until six. I saw everything." When he encounters those relatives now, they invariably coo over him. "Oh, we never thought you'd be a superstar," they say, tousling his hair, to which he responds coyly: "I'm not a superstar. I'm an actor."
His insistence on this distinction exemplifies the high regard in which he holds
his craft. "Acting has always been a way for me to express the emotions I had
buried. If I hadn't acted, I would have gone insane. In my acting class, I could
let out my real tears and everyone thought it was the character. But no, it was me."
It wasn't only those effusive aunts and uncles who had Leung pegged as a superstar. Since his early twenties, when he starred in two hit television series, he has been unable to walk freely through his native city. Once he had conquered movies - and cultivated a singing career on the side - like most Hong Kong actors, he graduated to the top of the paparazzi's wish list. "Life is unreal for me," he complains. "I am always under surveillance by photographers. If I go into a shop, I have privilege.
I never have to reserve a table for dinner. They can always find one for me: the best one." I remind him that most people would think this was great. "It is great," he concedes. "But I need to live like ordinary people if I am going to improve my acting.
I need sometimes to be ignored."
Perhaps, then, he might consider a change of scenery. It's not as though he hasn't received offers to work in other countries. Scripts arrive regularly from France, America and Australia, but he hasn't found the right one yet. "If I get something interesting, why not?" he muses. For now, though, he is concentrating on the immediate future. Later this year, he hopes to appear in a thriller by Tran Anh Hung, who directed Leung in the bizarre Cyclo. "It is about a cop, a serial killer, Jesus and a beggar," he says serenely. "I play Jesus."
Perhaps he can slip into character early and perform the miracle of getting Wong to complete 2046 in time for its premiere at Cannes in May.
"I asked him recently, 'Are we nearly finished?' He told me, 'Almost there.'" He lets out an exasperated sigh and rocks back in his seat, gripped by glee, mild hysteria, or both.