By Jonathan Marlow
July 27, 2005 - 2:18 AM PDT
When Jonathan Marlow met Tony Leung Chiu Wai, they wasted little time on small talk, lunging directly into a discussion of 2046.
It started in Bangkok in the middle of In the Mood for Love because, at the time, I was starting on another project [Tokyo Raiders]. We stopped shooting Mood and Wong Kar-wai decided to start 2046 and prepared some shots for the futuristic part with some other actors and actresses in 1999. When I came back from Tokyo, we worked on In the Mood for Love again and I did some shooting for 2046 in that period of time. We encountered a lot of problems when all the big names in the movie, coming in from other projects, didn't expect to shoot that long. Scheduling conflicts with actors is one of the problems, and the locations, shooting in different countries, can take a long time. In-between filming 2046, I made three movies - Infernal Affairs I and III and a comedy in Hong Kong [My Lucky Star].
Kar-wai said that he wanted me to play the same character as In the Mood for Love but to do it very differently. He wanted me to play it darkly. It's really difficult, because I was already used to the original Chow Mo-wan. With everything the same, I knew that it would not be easy for me to do. "It will be more powerful if everything remains the same but you act different." "I know, but I can't!" We argued and afterwards he compromised, so I started with the moustache first. I'm the kind of actor that works with appearance first and go inside. If everything is the same, I have nothing to work on, so I start with something to make myself believe I'm some other person. I work with the walking tempo, the body language and the voice and make it a little bit different.
It didn't work at the very beginning. You know when you act, you're very conscious about how you move or how to gesture. You will jump back to the original Mr. Chow very unconsciously. With the same name, same surroundings, you somehow just jump back. I remember Kar-wai sitting in front of the monitor saying, "No, no, no, no, Tony! Same voice again! That's old Mr. Chow!" We went through quite difficult moments. If you're working on and off, over different periods of time, it's hard. I worked with Zhang Ziyi and after her part, then Faye Wong and after Faye Wong finished, then came Gong Li and Carina [Lau]. It was sad for me to see people coming in and out. "Congratulations, you're finished!"
They're the lucky ones!
2046 was a great experience and they made things much easier and smoother. They're all so different and so special. This was my first time working with Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. Not really the first time with Zhang Ziyi, but we didn't have many scenes together in Hero. They're really good. They're all very talented.
Tony Leung in 2046
To go deeply into a character that long is very tiring and very exhausting. It's like reading a book for five years but only reading a chapter every three months. He used to re-shoot some scenes over and over again. Often, it wasn't a problem of the performance of this actor or actress but because of the costumes. He'll think the costume is not right, so he'll want to shoot it again with a different look. He would show me the rushes and say that he wants exactly the same performance again. How can you do exactly the same thing again? Sometimes, I don't quite remember how I did the scene because I did it half a year ago. He puts so much pressure on you and wants you to do it exactly the same. Sometimes, maybe after you did it again and again, he may some day come up with an idea that we should do it on the street and not in a restaurant anymore.
I never knew how the film would turn out. At first, I thought it was just a story about a man. Now I think it's far more complicated. It is a story about promises, about memory and about love. I can see many layers. When I was shooting, I didn't have any idea what it was about. Even if he has a story in mind, Kar-wai's the kind of director that never reveals it to his actor and actresses. We have a very strange kind of relationship. Although I've worked with him over twelve years, I still don't know him very well. For me, he's a very serious guy. We seldom talk, even on the set. We used to keep a distance, even at rehearsal. I don't know why he wants to keep ourselves fresh every time we work together, but it's how we work.
In the absence of input from Kar-wai, do you tend to collaborate more with the other actors, particularly actors you've worked with on other films? Do you interact more with Faye Wong, for instance?
Working with Faye Wong is always very interesting. She is that kind of actress that always claims she cannot act. She always seems so insecure. She doesn't have any confidence in acting but I think she's a great actress. She works without specific direction. She acts by instinct. Inspiring, too. You never know what she will do next. With some other professional actresses you will somehow find a kind of passion that you can predict what she will do next. Faye Wong is always very challenging since you don't know what she'll do. You just follow her. I think she's very great at using her body to express emotion. She is very good at body language. She's very natural.
Tony Leung and Faye Wong in 2046
Does she take a lot from you? Does she ask you for advice? On Chinese Odyssey, there seemed to be a real connection between the two of you.
I don't think that it's a good idea to tell her how to act. On the set, I only try to make her feel easy, like taking her a glass of wine. I felt strange about the shooting in 2046. I've never seen Wong Kar-wai use a piece of music on the set, but when he was doing the scene with Faye Wong in the futuristic part, he used to play opera on the set. I think it made it easier for Faye Wong to do the scenes. It was so strange. I hate that. He used to play that music and I said, "No, no, no. Please don't." I would follow the tempo of the music, but not my tempo. I was restricted by that music. "No, don't do this to me."
Do you and Faye work together on the characters?
On Wong Kar-wai movies, no. Because we have nothing to work on! He would have new ideas come up every day so we didn't want to have any preconceptions before shooting. We only seek the script for that day's shooting. Some other directors are used to working with a different approach. I would do a lot of preparation with them, hang out with them, work out the scripts and characters together, but not with Kar-wai. I've worked with many directors, but with Kar-wai it's different. With Andrew Lau, I can have more control on character and on the script. We work it out beforehand and I feel more secure.
Particularly when you have to revisit a character that you played in another film, such as Lau's Infernal Affairs series, do you devote a great deal of time to preparation and developing the character?
We do. We used to hang out together every day for three months before shooting so we have a very clear idea of what we want to do before shooting. Not like Kar-wai, where we feel very insecure and frustrated during the shooting. You don't even have any idea what the story is about after the last day shooting! He could cut together five different movies from the 2046 footage. It's very different.
Andy Lau and Tony Leung in Infernal Affairs
Did you look at the second Infernal Affairs before you shot the third film?
I saw it.
Did you bring any of the background in Infernal Affairs II to your role in the third film or did you only take what you had in the first film and carry that forward?
I used a little of the background, although they should've stopped with the first one! Based on different cultures and a different perspective, it'll be quite interesting to see how Martin Scorsese remakes Infernal Affairs. Scorsese is very good at gangs. I look forward to seeing how the project turns out.
You've made it clear that you prefer working in Asia and that Hollywood has little attraction for you.
In Hollywood, they have great actors and great actresses from all over the world. I don't know why they would need to write a specific script or a specific role for an Asian like me. There isn't much point in doing that. The characters that I can play in Hollywood would be very restricted. There are not many scripts that ask for Asians, so I would never think to develop my career here. I grew up with Hollywood movies and I was quite influenced by them. As an Asian actor, I would love to do one some day. I would treasure it as a very rare opportunity but I would need to make sure that it was the right script, the right material and the right crew and make sure that it would be a very memorable experience. I think once in a lifetime would be good enough. I'm not resisting Hollywood. In Asia, I still have a very wide and diverse variation of characters to play.
Of course, in the past twenty years, I've mostly made movies in Hong Kong but the state of the film industry in Hong Kong is getting worse. We cut down to fifty films last year, from over two-hundred productions per year in the 1990s. There are still people making movies, but not many can survive. What survives are big stars and big productions. No more low-budget movies or small productions. The only way out, I think, is co-production with other countries to expand the market, making the market big enough that you can have more money for production.
A few years ago, we were making co-productions with China. Chinese co-productions have a lot of restriction on the scripts. The censorship can be quite strict. For instance, you can't have killers in China. You have to do that in Hong Kong. For Infernal Affairs, we had to do an ending where Andy is killed because corrupt cops can't stay alive in the end. You have to kill them. Not only in China but in Malaysia, too. Still, I think co-production with another country is the way to go. I would love to deal with Korean and Japanese co-productions, too. I don't think movies should be bound. They should be borderless. I think the trend for Asian movies is not in one place but pan-Asian. Hero is a good example. Talent from different countries with different cultures, working together.
Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung in 2046
Obviously, your feelings for Wong Kar-wai, Christopher Doyle and the rest of Kar-wai's crew are reciprocated. Kar-wai has used you more than any other actor. He must expect that you will rise to the challenge in all of these parts. Are these the roles that you most relish? Would you prefer to do comedy? Are you drawn to dramas, like your work with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Anh Hung Tran? Do you enjoy your efforts as an action hero in the films of John Woo, Tsui Hark and others? Outside of the challenge you get from Wong Kar-wai, which roles really inspire you to challenge yourself?
I love to do different movies, different roles, but usually Kar-wai's movies are the most challenging. He knows me very well. I'm actually a very lazy actor. If you don't ask for more, I won't give you more. Kar-wai used to push me very hard and he pushed me really far. That's why I think working with him is very exhausting. For others, they don't ask me for that much, so it's not that challenging, but it is fun to work with different directors.
However, I enjoy working with Kar-wai and the rest of the crew very much. We've worked for twelve years and we've built up a lot of trust with each other. It's very hard to do that and it's really difficult to find the right group of people to work with. The reason why I've worked with Kar-wai so long is because he makes me look very different than other directors. He has a very different perspective on me. I don't know how, but he can bring the best out of me. He can explore some qualities that sometimes I even don't know exist. That's the reason a lot of big stars in Asia are really willing to work with him, although they know working with him will be very difficult. The process is really... you can't say it's not enjoyable, but it can be painful. The results are always surprising.
Do you create your own challenges when the director doesn't bring any challenge to the set?
Yes, that's why we have to do a lot of preparation beforehand. I'll ask for it. I'll ask for them to do some research, but working with him is different. You can't work with other directors like you work with Wong Kar-wai. It will kill you. You will die.
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"He can bring the best out of me."
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In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
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