IN PROFILE Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
Described by many as East Asia’s answer to Clark Gable, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is a Chinese actor famous both for his TV comedies and his dark, brooding film roles. With tremendous screen presence and a reputation for capturing the eye of the audience, Leung is famed for his ability to tackle intense scenes, particularly the beautifully stylistic work of legendary director Wong Kar-wai.
Leung was born in Hong Kong on 27th June 1962 and was raised by his mother along with his younger sister. The product of a broken home, Leung was encouraged to try out for TVB by friend Stephen Chow but found out, after a successful early career, that his need for emotional fulfilment within his character was better suited to feature length films.
After passing the TVB training course in 1982, Leung was cast in a series of comedies and children’s programmes. During his successful career in television, Leung was named one of TVB’s ‘five tigers’, along with Andy Lau, Felix Wong, Michael Miu and Kent Tong. Long-time colleague Maggie Cheung was another who began her acting career at the same time.
During the 1990s, Leung became better known for his film acting. He appeared first internationally in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 1989 film A City Of Sadness and then received further acclaim when he started alongside Chow Yun-fat in John Woo’s Hard Boiled in 1992. He played his supporting role in this film with enough force and presence to stand up to the charisma of Chow Yun-fat. Leung’s part in Hard Boiled is often thought to be a turning point in his career and marks the beginning of his move into lead roles. Leung’s transition to leading man was made all the easier by his ability to speak English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Spanish fluently, as well as a little Japanese. He was also well known in China for is singing career, gaining success in both the Cantopop and Mandopop markets.
Leung went on to work with some of Hong Kong’s biggest names as he became recognised as a serious art film actor. He appeared in a number of Wong Kar-wai films, notably In The Mood For Love, for which he won the Best Actor award at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2000. Leung’s moving and sensitive portrayal of a victim of adultery in this film is often said to be the very pinnacle of his career. In The Mood For Love showcases all the merits for which this excellent actor has become known: his brooding nature, his emotional connection with his roles, and his ability to shift and change, fully immersing himself in the character he has been appointed. Leung has picked up numerous Best Actor awards at the Hong Kong Film Festival. Some of Leung’s most famous films to date include Chungking Express, Ashes Of Time (both 1994), Happy Together (1997), In The Mood For Love (2000) and Hero and Infernal Affairs (both 2002).
One of the main reasons for Leung’s successful career is that he is an incredibly difficult actor to pigeonhole. Choosing a careful selection of auteur movies from some of Asia’s most prominent directors as well as lower-budget, more farcical films, Leung plays a diverse range of characters. He is known simultaneously for his comic boyish face and his ability to play some brilliantly conceived anti-heroes. Leung showed his range in Ang Lee’s 2007 film Lust Caution. Rather than playing his usual sensitive soul, Leung starred as Mr Yee, a secret agent that, during WWII, slowly loses his grip on his humanity as is forced to stoop to indecent levels of depravity for his country. Leung stated that Lee had greatly aided him in adapting his body language to play a dark, strong, masculine role, not a feat that he had attempted previously. In this film, he throws aside his nice-guy image and delves into the murkier waters of rape and violence, not situations that international audiences would normally associate with the kind-natured Leung.
Tony Leung is quoted in many interviews as saying he would one day like to appear in a Hollywood film, particularly working with the acclaimed director Martin Scorsese. It is thought that Leung’s reluctance to take on any role he considers degrading may be the reason for his continued absence from American films, but with rumours of his signing with an American agent, it may not be long before the Asian star appears in the US.
Tony Leung has been a star in East Asia for over a quarter of a century and although it could be argued that much of his success has come from collaboration with Wong Kar-wai, Leung’s individual talent is still plain to see. He built up his style with various nice-guy and anti-hero roles and tore down any stereotypes that may have been created around him with his much darker role in Lust Caution. Having apparently taken on acting to combat his chronic shyness – Leung’s introverted nature is clear in many of his interviews – it is hard to believe on film that the presence that strikes through the heart of so many iconic Asian films could be anything other than completely self-assured.
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