Bright Future: Tony Leung
Written by: Edward Guthmann
Published in: San Francisco Chronicle on August 21, 2005
In Hong Kong, where he’s the veteran of 65 movies, Tony Leung Chiu Wai can’t go anywhere without asking for trouble. Paparazzi stalk him at home and trail him in cars. Whenever he dines out, restaurant personnel report his whereabouts to tabloids and collect hefty kickbacks.
“You are under surveillance all the time, 24 hours,” Leung says. “And you don’t know when they are going to appear.” It’s that way throughout Asia: Even China, once loath to follow Western cultural models, has a thriving industry of celebrity rags and gossip pages.
In the United States, Leung, 43, is unknown outside an ever- diminishing community of foreign-film enthusiasts. If you’re lucky, you saw him play an undercover cop in “Infernal Affairs” and John Woo’s “Hard Boiled,” a master assassin in Yimou Zhang’s”Hero,” or a series of soulful, disaffected dreamers in films from frequent collaborator Wong Kar-Wai. Their latest collaboration, “2046,” opened this weekend in Bay Area theaters.
A futuristic fantasy about the impossibility of romantic love, “2046″ casts Leung as Mr. Chow, the character he played in Wong’s 2000 success “In the Mood for Love,” for which he was named best actor at the Cannes Film Festival. In that film, set in Hong Kong in 1962, Mr. Chow is a married man who falls for an elegant married woman, played by Maggie Cheung, who lives in the same rooming house. The couple rendezvous in taxis, take chaste walks down back alleys by night and play out an extended dance of exquisite, unconsummated desire.
Not doing it has never been so erotic — at least on film.
In “2046,” Mr. Chow is relocated to Shanghai, bitter and alone, addicted to dead-end relationships that satisfy his taste for misery and fuel the pulpy stories he writes. The title refers to the number of the hotel room where Cheung met Leung in “In the Mood for Love,” to the year when the former British colony of Hong Kong fully reverts to China and also to the future — to a place and time where lonely people go by train to recapture lost memories. In addition to Cheung, the cast includes Leung’s former girlfriend of 12 years, Carina Lau, and Chinese superstars Gong Li (“Raise the Red Lantern”) and Zhang Ziyi (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).
It took five years to complete “2046,” partly because of the SARS epidemic and also because of Wong’s well-known penchant for delaying his pictures with incessant fine-tuning. When “2046″ premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the print arrived 12 hours late. Two months later, it was pulled from the Edinburgh Film Festival because perfectionist Wong wanted more time to tinker.
There’s not a lot that happens in “2046.” The languid, carefully composed shots that Wong constructs for his actors are anathema to the frenzied rhythms of contemporary Hollywood. But Leung, who has starred in most of Wong’s films — six altogether, making him the Robert De Niro to Wong’s Martin Scorsese — is always compelling. Few actors have Leung’s gift for generating emotion and sympathy with such economy of means. He never strains, but slips stealthlike inside his characters.
Last year, a French newspaper called Leung “the Asian Clark Gable,” presumably because of the thin moustache he sports in “2046″ and the retro look of slicked-back hair, thin neckties and suits with narrow lapels. The resemblance ends there. Whereas Gable was robust, athletic and lacking in mystery, Leung has the warm dark eyes and inner calm of a Zen priest.
He’s equally adept at playing gangsters, gentlemen, killers and cops, but in person one is stunned at how short and delicate Leung is. Given the authority of his screen acting, the contrast between his screen self and real self is stunning. Leung is so quiet and soft-spoken, in fact, that he seems utterly defenseless — like a frightened schoolboy forced out of voluntary seclusion.
Leung has made dozens of films apart from Wong, so their collaboration hasn’t exactly defined him, and yet their creative symmetry is so strong and their collective achievement so remarkable — beginning with “Days of Being Wild” in 1991 and including the influential “Happy Together” in 1997 and “Chungking Express” in 1994 — that one thinks of them as a unit. Leung once said, “We belong to each other.”
Their partnership is also bizarre, Leung revealed during a recent visit to San Francisco. “We never talk on the set, except when he needs to tell me something, like, ‘Not like this, Tony. More intense.’ He is always a very mysterious figure. Not only for me, for all of us. He is always wearing his sunglasses so you don’t know what’s on is mind.” (Wong calls the sunglasses “my uniform.”)
Leung says he never sees a script for any of Wong’s films, never knows his dialogue until the day he shoots it and never knows how a movie will end while he’s working on it. In the United States, only Woody Allen exercises that same option for secrecy — for keeping his actors in the dark and, more often than not, insecure.
In all their years as collaborators, Wong has never visited Leung in his home and Leung has rarely seen Wong’s. “Our relationship is very strange. We have dinner sometimes but he never tells me anything about his personal life.” (Wong is married and has a young son.)
Leung is private as well. He lives alone in Hong Kong, having ended his long-term relationship with Lau. “I’m not a social guy,” he says. “I don’t hang out with showbiz people. I’m used to being alone, eating alone, and I enjoy it very much. I don’t have many friends.”
To escape public scrutiny, he frequently goes out on his yacht where he’s able to relax and read scripts. It’s a screwy way to live one’s life, but Leung says he loves to act and, at this point, has little control over his level of fame or the interest of his vast public.
For a man as reserved and passive as Leung, acting would seem an illogical choice. He started in the early ’80s — “Just a coincidence,” he says — when he learned that a Hong Kong TV station was looking for new talent for an actor’s training class. “You go through some examination and you get trained for a year, and they give you something to do in TV.”
It didn’t take long for audiences to respond to Leung’s charisma and his ability to express complex, vivid emotion without seeming to try. His talent, he says, comes indirectly from his family background. Abandoned by his father when he was 6, Leung grew up with his single mother and younger sister and never discussed the absence — even when the father briefly returned and then disappeared three more times.
“After my father left me, I stopped talking to people. I’m very good at hiding my emotions in front of others, very isolated from other people. And I become very quiet, very suppressed.”
After 13 years of this, Leung says, “I got into the training class and I found a way to express myself.” Under the protection of acting, he says, “Nobody knows that is me because they would think I wasn’t doing that character very well. And I won’t be shy or ashamed to cry in front of others.”
Leung is set to shoot his next film with Wong next summer. Their seventh collaboration, it’s the story of Ip Man, the Hong Kong kung fu master, now dead, who taught action star Bruce Lee in the 1960s. Fond of extensive preparation, Leung will spend several months studying wing chun, a type of martial arts.
“At first I planned to practice it for half a year,” he says, “but it doesn’t make sense now, because I’m working on other projects to the end of the year.”
His time may be limited, but his motivation isn’t: “For at least three months after I saw ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ ” he says, “I said, ‘Wow, how did Hilary Swank do that?’ She just looked like a boxer.”