Since making his film debut in 1982, Hong Kong actor Tony Leung has worked steadily, appearing in nine released films in 1993 alone, during the early-’90s height of Hong Kong filmmaking. Leung—also billed as Tony Leung Chiu-Wai to distinguish him from fellow Hong Kong actor and occasional co-star Tony Leung Ka-Fai—remains one of Asia’s most popular stars, and in recent years, he’s worked with everyone from John Woo (subbing in for Chow Yun-fat at the last minute as the star of Red Cliff) to Ang Lee (Lust, Caution). Leung’s most enduring professional collaboration, however, is with Wong Kar-wai; he’s appeared in seven of the director’s 10 features. Wong uses Leung’s naturally mournful demeanor to great effect in films like Chungking Express, Happy Together, and In The Mood For Love, and he continues the trend in the pair’s latest collaboration, The Grandmaster. Leung plays Ip Man, a famed martial artist who fled from mainland China to Hong Kong and became an influential teacher for Bruce Lee, among others. Years in the works, the film required Leung to train extensively to execute its fight scenes. Yet, smiling more than he usually does onscreen, Leung didn’t look any worse for wear when The Dissolve spoke to him in Chicago.
The Dissolve: You’ve been talking about doing a martial-arts movie with Wong Kar-wai since 2004. Is The Grandmaster the film you were talking about?
Tony Leung: Yes. He had the idea of making this when we were shooting [1997’s] Happy Together in Buenos Aires. But we announced the project in 2004, I think, around that period of time.
The Dissolve: How has it changed over the years?
Leung: I don’t know, because after he announced it, I knew he was not going to do the movie in a very short period of time. So we did some other movies. We did In the Mood For Love, and we almost forgot about this project. [Laughs.] And suddenly, six years ago, he said, “Okay, we are going to do it now.” So that’s it. I don’t know what happened in between, because we never discuss. Our relationship is very strange. We have been working together for over 20 years, and we’ve known each other for 20 years, but we seldom meet. And we never talk. We seldom discuss together.
The Dissolve: So you mostly interact with him on set?
Leung: Yes. Somehow, we just connect. So I don’t know what happened in between. What I know is, almost two years before shooting, he showed me a book that is a Chinese martial-arts novel in the Republic period. And he said, “Here. This is what I want.” And I read it and said, “Wow. Very Wong Kar-wai.” [Laughs.] And the author of that martial-arts novel is also one of our scriptwriters. And we have another screenwriter who knows this period very well, every small detail of this period—all the cultural things, traditions. So that’s the first thing I got for this project, the martial-arts books. And Bruce Lee. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: Were there any particular biographical details that you used to build your portrayal?
Leung: I started with Bruce Lee, because Kar-wai wanted me to merge Bruce Lee’s character into Ip Man. But I have no idea why, and I didn’t ask, because… “Okay, if you want me to, then I’ll try to study.” Then I studied Bruce Lee and Bruce Lee movies. I was a big fan of Bruce Lee, but I knew nothing about him. At that time, I was a kid. And then I studied his books, because Bruce Lee left us a lot of books about his understanding of kung fu—his perspective of kung fu, and his mission in kung fu. And it really helped me a lot on this character, because to have to look like a grandmaster is easy—you just need to master all the basic moves and all the techniques in fighting. But to have the soul, the state of mind of a grandmaster, you need to have the knowledge, your vision in kung fu, and your perspective. So I got all this information from Bruce Lee. And after I studied all his books, I discovered that kung fu is not just a scientific method of self-defense. There is also a spiritual side of kung fu. It is a way of training your mind, like meditation as well as the way of life. Because during the transformation of this art over 4,000 years, it went through a lot of stages, and it was greatly influenced by Taoism, Zen, and the I Ching. So there’s a lot of philosophy inside kung fu. It’s not just fighting techniques. It’s a lot more. But in order to achieve the spiritual side of kung fu, first you need to go through the techniques of physical ability. And then after you train your body, you can start training your mind.
The Dissolve: You make that sound a lot simpler than it probably is. It looks very hard onscreen.
Leung: [Laughs.] Yes. I trained nonstop from the first day until the end. It takes about four and a half years. Not just to master all of the moves, but to understand the state of mind of this kind of grandmaster. There’s a lot of stillness in the movie in the action scenes. When you do a pose or when you are in a fight, it’s easy to do a pose, but what’s in your mind? What are you thinking? When you fight, what should be in your mind, and what should you think? Or maybe you’re not thinking. Or something very spiritual, like no-mindedness. It doesn’t mean to shut down your mind, and empty your mind… It’s talking about non-grasping. You receive, but you do not keep. The spiritual side of kung fu cannot be just reading two books. [Laughs.] So I learned the theory from them. In order to understand the feeling, I needed to practice. So I took four years’ time to try to understand what their state of mind was. And it really helped me in action scenes when Kar-wai had very still, close-up shots. You need to have that kind of knowledge as an actor. If not, your eyes will be blank. [Laughs.] Because it’s not a drama scene. There’s no drama. You’re just in the mood and the kung-fu state of mind. And that takes a long time.
Besides all these kung-fu things, I have to work on the character. And we have no information about this kung-fu great before he settled in Hong Kong. So this is the missing part—what am I going to do? So, okay, well, I know—a young, charismatic man like Bruce Lee. He can look like a young, charismatic, very confident, maybe a bit playful… Because he came from a very wealthy family. No worries before his 40s. Kung fu is just his hobby. And so I tried to merge Bruce Lee into his previous life. And when he moved to Hong Kong, I have some information about him. I learned it from his son, and also my teacher, who is supposed to be his teacher. And I saw a lot of his pictures. And from the pictures, he didn’t look like a kung-fu man. He was very erudite and graceful. He had very refined qualities, like a scholar. I didn’t know where these qualities came from, but later, I figured it out.
“I discovered that kung fu is not just a scientific method of self-defense. There is also a spiritual side of kung fu. It is a way of training your mind, like meditation as well as the way of life.”
And in that period of time, he lived a very, very difficult life in Hong Kong. It seemed like he fell from heaven to hell. He didn’t even have a blanket in the wintertimes. My master told me that in the winter once he borrowed a blanket from one of his students. And on New Year’s Eve, the student came and said, “I want my blanket back.” And he was just so calm, and wrapped it up in newspaper, and gave it back to him. That was so sad. And there are a lot of stories like this when he was living in Hong Kong. But in all the pictures he took in Hong Kong, in banquets and gatherings, he always wore a smile on his face. And I could still see the dignity in his eyes. He still lived with dignity. And I was thinking, “Wow, this is an amazing person. How can he deal with life like that so easily, if he is going through this kind of life?” And I was really amazed by that, and I talked to Kar-wai and said, “What do you think about his character? How can he be like that?” And he said, “He is optimistic.” And I said, “No, not just optimistic. There might be something that inspired him.” And after I studied kung fu, I know maybe kung fu inspired him in the way of life, and how to deal with life. He applied all the philosophy and the theory he learned from kung fu. And kung fu maybe, in some way, transformed this guy.
The Dissolve: Did you grow up with martial-arts films?
Leung: Yes. Just like I mentioned before, I am a big fan of Bruce Lee. So I watched martial-arts films. Based on a lot of research, after the Grandmaster moved to Hong Kong, I think he really made Hong Kong become the center of kung-fu film. Kung-fu films started getting very popular in Hong Kong. I used to see a lot of kung-fu films when I was a kid. Right until now, Hong Kong is still famous for its action movies. Not just kung fu, but action. A lot of kung-fu masters, they passed on their skills to a lot of people who have now become stuntmen or stunt choreographers, like Sammo Hung.
The Dissolve: You have all these skills now. Do you need to find another movie where you can use your martial-arts skills?
Leung: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I hope I can carry on. I was really interested in the spiritual side of kung fu. Right until now, I’m still discovering. I’m still reading books by Bruce Lee. And because of Bruce Lee, I started studying Taoism, the Chinese philosophy. It’s a very spiritual thing. It’s very interesting. A lot to explore.
The Dissolve: How have martial-arts experts received the film? Have they liked it?
Leung: I think so. Because Kar-wai did a lot of research, from finding all these kung-fu greats… Because there are no such true martial-arts schools in China now. The kung fu that exists now is usually what I think of as sports, for performance. And you can only learn true Chinese kung fu from individuals. You never know who is the true master. The one doing work on a construction site, maybe he’s a grandmaster. You never know. And for all those kung-fu experts, they know we are trying to be authentic. And in every action scene, we had a different master on the set. And every time, after one shot was finished, I’m not looking at [stunt coordinator] Yuen Woo-ping, I’m looking at my teacher.
The Dissolve: One thing I like about your performance here—and in In the Mood for Love particularly—is that you feel like you belong to that period.
Leung: Yeah, especially the ’60s. Because I was born in the ’60s. When Wong Kar-wai worked with me on the movie, it recalls a lot of memories. I remember the color, I remember the light, I remember all the settings, the air, the smell. I don’t know why, but it recalls a lot about my memory. So I know the ’60s quite well. I remember my mother, all the banquets we went to, how people dressed, and that kind of air. So the ’60s is our period, maybe.
The Dissolve: What’s next?
Leung: I want to take a long holiday.
The Dissolve: Red Cliff must have been a tremendously involved shoot, and then followed by this…
Leung: Yes, yes. So I want to take a long holiday. And when we were doing promotion in Korea, suddenly, because of a picture, I talked to Kar-wai one night after a screening, and I said, “Do you find something in that picture of me and a Korean actress?” And Kar-wai said, “Yes. You two look so matched.” I said, “Yes. Do you think we can do something about that? Why not develop an action-comedy?” So we are now trying to develop an action-comedy. But not this year. We hope to shoot maybe at the end of next year. The wintertime is better for action. [Laughs.]