The Melancholic Charm of Tony Leung Chiu Wai
Written by: James Mudge
Published in: yesasia.com on January 16, 2007
Tony Leung Chiu Wai is not only one of the best known, but also most respected Asian actors of modern times. He has won awards at film festivals around the world and gained the admiration and respect of his peers, including cinematic legends such as Robert DeNiro (who referred to the actor as the Asian equivalent of Clark Gable) and director Martin Scorsese (who has since gone on to remake one of the actor’s most famous films). Usually known in the West simply as Tony Leung, he is not to be confused with fellow thespian Tony Leung Ka Fai, a popular actor in his own right who recently starred in Johnnie To’s 2005 triad drama Election. To distinguish the two, Leung has been given the nickname in Hong Kong of “Wai Jai”, or “Little Tony”, due to his younger age.
The actor has come to be known not only for his mournful matinee-idol looks and laid-back charm, but also for the complex and intense performances he has delivered while working with such acclaimed directors as John Woo, Wong Kar Wai, and Hou Hsiao Hsien. All have praised the actor for his meticulous, dedicated approach, and for truly throwing himself into roles. At the same time, he has continued to work in less high-brow fare, proving himself to be a highly versatile performer who is equally at home in action, comedy, and arthouse films. Interestingly, although he speaks fluent English, he has yet to appear in a Western film, although this may well change in the near future now that he has signed with an American agency.
In addition to his acting career, Leung is also a successful singer, having recorded songs in both Cantonese and Mandarin. Since the early 90s, he has released several fairly well-received albums, including Hard to Forget You and Wind and Sand. In recent years, however, he has withdrawn from the music industry, save for the occasional soundtrack contribution to several of his own films, including a duet with Andy Lau for the film Infernal Affairs in 2002.
Leung was born in Guangdong Province on June 27, 1962, and raised in Hong Kong along with his younger sister by their mother after their father abandoned them. As with many other Hong Kong stars, he began his career on television by enrolling in the acting training course at Hong Kong’s leading television studio TVB, apparently at the advice of his friend Stephen Chow. After making his debut hosting a popular children’s program, he became known for his comedy roles, with his first big success being Police Cadet in 1984, in which he worked for the first time with frequent co-star Maggie Cheung. In the same year, Leung also starred with a young Andy Lau in the classic TV drama The Duke of Mount Deer, and met his future sweetheart Carina Lau whilst working on Replica.
His film career took longer to reach its stride, and Leung carried on working in television for most of the decade, including roles in two more Police Cadet series entries and Jin Yong adaptation The New Heaven Sword & The Dragon Sabre in 1986. At the same time, he began appearing in low-budget films, gradually working his way up to supporting roles. His efforts finally paid off with accolades at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Derek Yee’s People’s Hero (1987) and Patrick Tam’s My Heart Is That Eternal Rose (1989). His profile was also raised thanks to his performance in Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien’s A City of Sadness, which took the Golden Bear award at the 1989 Venice Film Festival, as well as films with popular directors such as Stanley Kwan on Love Unto Waste (1986) and Sammo Hung on Seven Warriors (1989). In 1991 he featured in the overwhelmingly all-star cast of The Banquet, alongside Gong Li, Leslie Cheung, Andy Lau, and long-time friend Stephen Chow to name but a few.
This led to bigger parts in the likes of Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991) and John Woo’s classic Vietnam War drama Bullet in the Head (1990). Woo later gave Leung what many still consider to be his career-defining role opposite the legendary Chow Yun Fat in Hard Boiled (1992), for which he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Although he technically played the role of a sidekick, Leung’s performance was one of such melancholic, sad-eyed charm that it more than matched the super-cool charisma of the leading star, a fact which announced the actor’s arrival as a genuine star and pointed the way to the on-screen persona for which he would soon become famous.
Perhaps more importantly, it was during this period that the actor caught the eye of auteur director Wong Kar Wai, who gave him a brief appearance in his 1991 film Days of Being Wild, which starred Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung. The two would go on to collaborate on a number of other films, including the wuxia themed Ashes of Time and Chungking Express in 1994, with Leung finally winning the Best Actor prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his work on the latter. The next film for the duo was the controversial Happy Together (1997), in which the actor featured in daring sex scenes with co-star Leslie Cheung. For his portrayal of a depressed homosexual exile living in Argentina, Leung again won the top Hong Kong acting award. This was followed by In The Mood for Love, an atmospheric and sumptuous tale of frustrated love which elevated both star and director to internationally recognized status after both won awards at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. Leung and Wong have consistently worked well together, possibly due to the actor being one of the few who approves of the director’s notoriously meandering approach, having stated in interviews that he finds the lack of scripts challenging and creatively liberating.
The actor also gathered plaudits for his work with a number of other acclaimed directors, including his role in Cyclo (1995) by Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran, who had won an Oscar nomination in 1993 for his film The Scent of Green Papaya. In 1998 he re-teamed with Hou Hsiao Hsien for Flowers of Shanghai, a drama about brothels in the 1880s which was nominated for the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival.
At the same time as furthering his reputation as a serious actor, Leung starred in a diverse range of films, including both big-budget productions and low-brow slapstick. On one end of the scale, he appeared in films like Jingle Ma’s slick heist comedy Tokyo Raiders (2000), alongside Ekin Cheng and Cecilia Cheung, and the typically glossy Jackie Chan vehicle Gorgeous (1999). On the other, he continued to feature in lower budget films such as broad, wisecracking comedy Dr. Mack (1995) and ’97 Aces Go Places (1997), a new addition to the popular 1980s series. Further defying easy categorization, Leung also carved out a niche for himself in the gritty thriller genre, starring in the likes of Mikyway release The Longest Nite (1998), Herman Yau’s War of the Underworld (1996), and notorious Category III director Billy Tang’s prison drama Chinese Midnight Express (1998).
The latest phase of Leung’s career has seen him mixing critical and commercial success with his role in the Hong Kong blockbuster Infernal Affairs (2002) in which he starred opposite the ever popular Andy Lau. Directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, the film offered a humanistic antidote to the usual explosions and slow motion bullet ballet of most Asian police thrillers, and was a massive success worldwide, even being picked up for a Hollywood remake by Martin Scorsese. Leung’s tragic role as a tortured undercover cop nicely sets the tone for the film and won him another Best Actor accolade at the Hong Kong Film Awards, marking a record fourth win in the Best Actor category and his sixth statuette overall. Although he did not feature in the second film in the series, which took the form of a prequel (with actor Shawn Yue playing a younger version of his character), he returned for the final installment, giving a suitably harrowing performance.
In the same year Leung starred with Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, and Donnie Yen in Hero for renowned director Zhang Yimou, which proved to be yet another international award winner and box office smash for the actor. His role in the multi-layered wuxia epic as the tragic Broken Sword marked his first appearance in a mainland Chinese production, and he took a great personal interest in the film, getting involved in his own costume design as well as undergoing martial arts training.
Since then, his career has continued to flourish, with the actor taking on his usual mixture of serious and fun film roles. He worked again with Wong Kar Wai on the rather impenetrable but visually enchanting science fiction film 2046 (2004), joining an all-star cast which also featured Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Faye Wong, and Leung’s long-time love, Carina Lau, who he has been dating since 1989. Although the film was not as well received as its spiritual predecessor, In the Mood for Love, mainly due to the fact that nobody seems to be able to work out what it is actually about, it still won a good number of awards both domestically and internationally. Leung also returned to work with Jingle Ma on Seoul Raiders in 2005, which saw the actor reprising his role as a suave, wisecracking private eye alongside rejuvenated starlet Shu Qi. The film was basically a rerun of Tokyo Raiders in a different locale, offering the same kind of unpretentious entertainment and lightweight thrills.
In 2006, Leung collaborated once again with Infernal Affairs directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak in the glossy crime thriller Confession of Pain. Starring as a calculating police officer opposite heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro’s drunken detective, Leung once again stretched his acting prowess to portray a subtle, emotionally wrought character. Though the film failed to meet its sky-high expectations, it proved to be a slick and entertaining commercial work.
Leung’s success looks set to continue with roles in a number of upcoming high-profile films including John Woo’s historical epic The Battle of Red Cliff, which will reunite him with Andy Lau and Chow Yun Fat. Adding another notch to the belt of acclaimed Asian directors he has worked with, he also stars in Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s upcoming spy thriller Lust, Caution, an adaptation of Eileen Chang’s short story. In the film, Leung plays a government official caught up in an assassination plot in 1930s Shanghai. Of course, it is quite likely that he will manage to work in a few less serious roles alongside such prestigious fare, though whatever the case may be, it is certain that Tony Leung’s place as one of Asia’s top and most interesting actors is already secure.