Once lost, Tony Leung Chiu Wai is now found. All thanks to an enigmatic director, a string of rave reviews and the greatest acting prize in the world
THERE was a time when Tony Leung Chiu Wai was not in the mood for anything. That was back in the 1980s, when the actor was churning out one television serial after another.
"I was upset with myself, Aching with love is Tony Leung for his In The Mood For
Love co-star Maggie Cheung. thought I couldn't break through," said the 38-year-old to Life! at a recent photo shoot.
"I wasn't doing too well in the movies too. I was very confused."
According to the Hongkong media, Leung began an affair with the bottle about the same time he started dating voluptuous starlet Carina Lau.
"I was crashing," recalled the actor who was in town to promote his latest film, In The Mood For Love.
"Then, Wong Kar Wai appeared."
IT IS near-impossible to talk to Leung for more than 10 minutes without him veering into Wong Kar Wai-speak.
Wong Kar Wai-speak can be startling. It is usually sparse and evasive. At times, it can be stubbornly opaque and even annoyingly enigmatic.
One moment, Leung, a sharp and obliging interviewee, is recounting how, at the height of his depression in the 1980s, he spoke to his mother one night in the persona of the television character whom he happened to be playing at that time.
"She was shocked. I was shocked. And then, I realised that I was treating acting as a job, a way of making a living. It was consuming me and I didn't know it. Then, Wong Kar-Wai
asked me to do Days Of Being Wild."
But the moment the name of Hongkong's most-celebrated auteur crops up, Leung segues into Wong Kar Wai-speak.
"I agreed to do the movie. I was ready to try something new with a new
director. But it was a difficult shoot."
"Very, very difficult."
A 10-second pause.
"Yes, it was very difficult."
In what way was it difficult?
A 10-second silence.
"It was very tough."
Either it is a dead-on parody of the maddening way the director talks or a Wong Kar Wai experience is really indescribable.
Besides Leung, other actors, who have appeared in Wong's acclaimed movies, have lapsed into staccato replies when asked about the auteur's legendary shoots. Besides revealing that there were no scripts, the Wong alumni, which include Takeshi Kaneshiro, Leslie Cheung, Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung, have not conceeded much else.
Whatever the process, the results are life-changing.
After going through a "very difficult shoot" on 1991's Days Of Being Wild, Leung stepped into a new skin.
"I don't know how it happened. But I became more confident as an actor after
that film. I slept better at night. I felt good about myself for once."
Mind you, Leung appeared for only less than five minutes in a cameo role (combing his oil-slicked hair in the mirror) in that film.
SINCE then, the actor has become an extension of the director.
The two have collaborated on five films (Days Of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Ashes Of Time, Happy Together and In The Mood For Love), all of which have launched Leung's career in a spectacular, unconventional direction.
While mainstream thespians like Chow Yun Fat and Jet Li are known for their marquee value, Leung became one of those rare actors whose films do not make much money but are acknowledged as milestones in Hongkong cinema.
People do not remember him for his turn as a gizmo-obsessed agent in Tokyo Raiders. They remember Leung as PC 633, the morose cop from Chungking Express, Wong's 1994 film which painted Hongkong in pop-alienation neons.
While other actors were cutting albums and making millions by headlining in dozens of movies a year, he stuck to Wong, whose perfectionist approach to film-making means that he usually takes more than a year to shoot a film.
The pay-off for Leung came in the form of the Best Actor Award he bagged at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival earlier this year for his portrayal of a smitten journalist in In The Mood For Love.
For the debonair actor, it has been a journey, one that began when he was invited by Wong to comb his hair in Days Of Being Wild and climaxed with his winning the greatest thesping prize a decade later, on the back of another Wong movie.
"Of course I am grateful to Wong Kar Wai," said Leung forcefully.
"He picked me up at a point of my life when I couldn't go on anymore. It has
been a privilege and a pleasure to work for him. And a torture too."
Not much point asking for an elaboration of that torture.
LEUNG is a confident dandy.
His grunge-chic get-up (see-through nylon jacket, red T-shirt, blue jeans and grey suede shoes) is meant to look as if it was thrown together in a great hurry. But his meticulously-parted hair gives him away.
Trim and effortlessly youthful-looking, the bachelor speaks softly in perfect English that is tinged with an American accent.
His nails are manicured and he smokes his crumpled Marlboros very elegantly.
Due to leave the next day for the Pusan Film Festival in Korea, he is dishing out the lowdown on his In The Mood For Love co-star, Maggie Cheung.
"She is really insecure. Even more insecure than me," he says, flashing a cheeky grin reminiscent of the one he used so effectively in the TV serial, The Duke Of Mount Deer.
"She's very aggressive. She wants to discuss the script all the time. But then, you know Wong Kar Wai
does not have a script. So, what is there to discuss?"
He adds: "But Maggie -- she won't give up. She'll go why this, why that. I ended up calling her Miss Questions on the set."
"Me -- I don't ask questions. I just do it."
His can-do attitude is no longer reserved solely for Wong's art epics. Leung is one of those prolific and eclectic actors who straddles the art-house-mainstream divide (he was in Tokyo Raiders last year, he appeared in Healing Hearts last month).
"I see mainstream movies as training. I don't separate my work into art and
mainstream. I see them all as opportunities to try out new methods."
Rumoured to be priced at US$700,000 (S$1.2 million) a movie, Leung is not touched by the workaholism which plagues other Hongkong stars.
He does two movies a year, max. One of them is a mainstream picture, which he knocks off in a month. The other is always a Wong movie, which will take up the rest of the year.
"I don't think I'm sacrificing anything to act for Wong. His shoots are like
BORN in Hongkong in 1962, he saw his father walking out on the family when he was eight.
The star is reluctant to talk about his past. All he lets on is that he is extremely close to his Mum and that he started his career in 1982 by joining a year-long acting class organised by Hongkong's TVB television station.
"I was a loner as a kid," reveals the actor whose favourite directors include Spain's Pedro Almodovar.
"I'm still pretty much the same way."
Specialising in playing withdrawn, reticent types in Wong's movies, he is getting ready to make his debut as a producer next year. He is finalising a script and he will act as well.
"I'm no longer young, you know. I have to make plans. I also have to stretch myself."
Also in the pipeline is 2046, yet another Wong movie, the title of which is derived from the number of a hotel room featured in In The Mood For Love.
Leung sees the question coming from about a mile away and he volunteers: "I have
no idea what it's about. There's no script, as usual. And it'll be a difficult
shoot, as usual."