By Vivienne Chow, South China Morning Post, 2-2002
PUT FOUR STARS in a movie together, add a history of strained working
relationships and light the blue touch paper with a hectic shooting
schedule. It's just a matter of time before the fireworks begin.
Or not, according to Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Faye Wong, Chang Chen and Vicky
Zhao Wei. Contrary to Chinese press reports of a sour atmosphere on the set of
the comedy Chinese Odyssey 2002, the four stars insist they got along splendidly
- and more, that the intensity of the shooting enabled them to get to know each
other well. ''We were just like a big
family,'' says Leung, still hot property after winning best actor at Cannes in
2000 for his portrayal of a news reporter in In The Mood For
Love. ''We ate and drank together. It helped get everybody involved in their
characters.'' Leung's relief is palpable. Nine years ago, when
he and Cantopop diva Wong starred in the off-beat and gritty romance Chungking
Express, the pair hardly made eye contact once the cameras
had stopped rolling. Leung says the new Wong is a different woman. ''Last time
we worked together, we didn't talk much,'' he says. ''This time, she was very
friendly and cheerful. She joked with me all the time. I never realised she
could tell jokes. Unlike other experienced actors,
she doesn't act according to a formula. She is unpredictable - acting with her
is definitely fun.'' Wong, too, admits to a more mature
outlook. ''This was the first time for me to get to know Tony,'' she says. ''I
didn't speak to him at all during Chungking Express. Now I realise communication
between actors is essential. I was always seeking advice from him.''
Communication had to take a back seat in favour of hard graft, however.
Leung, Wong, Taiwan's Chinese Odyssey 2002 star Chang and mainland actress Zhao,
who recently shone in Shaolin Soccer, were bound together
in Shanghai with only two frantic months for filming. The abrupt schedule which
ended last month was timed to allow the film's release
in Hong Kong and across the mainland for the lucrative Lunar New Year period.
Chinese Odyssey 2002 is a comedy set in the Ming dynasty and is produced by
award-winning director Wong Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love, Happy Together) and
directed and written by Jeff Lau Chun-wai, who revealed his talents in comedies
such as A Chinese Odyssey (no relation to the new film) and The Legendary La
A classic tale of tangled love, it is the story of Princess Wu Shuang (Wong)
who, with her older brother Emperor Zheng De (Chang), often
sneaks out of the palace dressed as a man. They meet Li Yilong (Leung) and his
younger sister Phoenix (Zhao), vicious gangsters from a small town. Confusion
reigns when the princess falls for Li just as his sister Phoenix finds herself
head over heels in love with the princess in her
guise as a man. Naturally, Zheng De is in turn smitten with love for Phoenix.
Even the experienced Leung says the film provided a whole new experience for
him. He admits he had to throw in everything he learned over the past 20 years.
''I had to sing, dance, cry, laugh and ride a horse. I have never been in any
film like this before,'' says the 38-year-old. ''I have no confidence when it
comes to singing, but I had to perform three duets with Faye Wong.'' As most of
Leung's recent films have been melancholic dramas, he sees Chinese Odyssey 2002
as a breath of fresh air. ''I enjoy making comedies because I can be happy every
day,'' he says. ''I prefer films with good
gags and a touching and solid storyline, like this one. Good comedy scripts are
rare in Hong Kong. This one is complete and detailed. Without a script like
this, there is no way we could have finished the film so quickly.''
For Wong, 32, Chinese Odyssey 2002 is a comedy debut. She is better known for
her somewhat serious and aloof image. To imagine her making an audience giggle
seems, well, inconceivable. ''Don't think that I don't have a sense of humour,''
she protests. ''Comedy is difficult for me if I have to do those exaggerated
facial expressions but my role is not
required to do that. The comical effects come from the story itself.'' Comedy
was also new to Chang, who played Zhang Ziyi's love interest in
Crouching Tiger. The 25-year-old says he was worried before shooting began. ''My
friends say I don't have any sense of humour so I didn't
understand why I was chosen. And having to play Faye Wong's older brother was
very strange because I'm younger than her and I am less experienced.
Fortunately, the costume helped a lot.'' Chang admits he was intimidated by the
Cantopop queen, his long-time idol. ''I have been listening to her music since I
was in school. I secretly took my Walkman
when I did my military service just to listen to her songs. [On the set] I dared
not talk to her. All I managed to say was: 'Hi, are you working
now?' and: 'Bye, you off?'''
Wong says she did her best to be friendly and natural. ''I noticed [Chang]
didn't come up and talk to me much. He was very shy. But I tried
my best to be as normal as possible. What can I do?'' she says.
Leung says Chang has grown up a lot since they worked together on Happy
Together in 1997. ''The last time we worked together he was just a kid but now,
with more life experience, Chang is getting better,'' he says.
Chang in return says Leung helped boost his confidence. ''He taught me a lot. He
kept telling me: 'Don't worry, you can do it.''' For Leung,
time was the key pressure (apart from the singing). Over the previous six
months, he had been working in Hanzhou on the set of Hero, a
martial-arts extravaganza by critically acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou,
and had to get permission to take time out to shoot Chinese
Odyssey 2002. Although the tight schedule allowed him to take part, he says it
still came as a shock when he realised he had only 20 days to
shoot his scenes. ''It sounded impossible but I understand this is the style of
Wong Kar-wai's film company, Jet Tone - making impossibilities
become possible. We worked almost 20 hours every day. They only took two takes
for each shot. I nearly returned the money to the company and quit after the
first few days. I didn't even have the chance to say goodbye
to the crew [when his filming finished]. I was dragged to a coach back to
Hanzhou immediately after the last shot at 6am. It was very sad.''
Working under Jeff Lau Chun-wai's direction is in contrast to Leung's usual
style, he says. ''For instance, shooting a Wong Kar-wai-directed
film can last up to two years, where the first six months are just the warm-up
exercises. I'm so used to the slow filming progress.
''Usually I have two shots in the morning, then I hide in the coach eating
and resting during the day, followed by two shots in the
evening. Making this movie was just like fighting in a war.'' Inevitably, there
were looser moments. Zhao says getting a little drunk in the interests of the
film was one of them. ''There was a scene in which Tony, Faye and I were getting
wasted,'' she recalls. ''It was hard, so we really had a few drinks before
shooting that scene. All of us kept giggling.'' It was the first time Leung had
worked with Zhao and even amid the drunken takes he was impressed with the
25-year-old Beijing star. ''She is very
professional,'' he says. ''She didn't challenge the director's instructions as I
did when I started out. She delivered all of her performances very well.''
Wong and Zhao were at pains to
play down press reports during the shoot that they didn't get on
with each other. ''One day I was sitting on my own, far from Faye,
Tony and Chen but that moment was caught by the press and they
started making up stories of me not getting along with them,'' Zhao
says. Wong also dismisses such suggestions and says she
even sought advice on acting from the Beijing Film Academy-trained
Zhao. 'She is a very simple girl, not fussy about anything,'' Wong
says. ''As we share the same language, we talked a lot.'' It is
Wong, arguably, who has learned the most from the brief but intense
experience, notably a joy in film-making. ''Filming Chungking
Express was a nightmare for me,'' she says. ''I didn't have the
confidence to act at that time. I had no idea what I was doing and I
had to act out many embarrassing situations. ''But Chinese Odyssey
2002 has been such good fun. Jeff's direction was very clear and he
taught me how to do it. I want to know more about acting.'' Leung
agrees. ''The spirit and atmosphere throughout the whole film were
incredible,'' he says. ''I really hope there will be a sequel. It
just depends on whether the boss is willing to invest.''
Chinese Odyssey 2002 opens tomorrow on the Broadway and UA
circuits and at AMC Festival Walk. It is in Cantonese and Putonghua
with English subtitles.