We are at the end of summer. It is the eve of an approaching typhoon and the skies over Hong Kong are clear without a cloud in sight. The streets glisten under the dazzling sunlight and by nightfall, they are equally beautiful, adorned with neon signs that line the streets, their reflections cast upon the glass windows of skyscrapers. Film icon Tony Leung Chiu-Wai was the reason our crew travelled to Hong Kong after several months of persistent invitations. He had finally agreed to do a cover shoot and interview for Vogue Taiwan, but only on the condition that the entire process took place in Hong Kong, where he was located. “I don’t like flying,” Leung remarked.
On the big day, Leung arrived on set 20 minutes early. Having skipped lunch, his only request was for a cup of Hong Kong-style tea with milk. Despite our repeated offers to pick him up in a chauffeured car, I later found out that he had driven himself to the studio. Having come across online articles about Leung’s struggles with social anxiety, I made sure to arm myself with a multitude of questions prior to the interview in case our conversation was punctuated by any awkward silences.
Much to my surprise, my fears turned out to be unfounded. Not only was he a very engaging interviewee, but he was also a wonderful conversationalist who answered all my questions enthusiastically and shared his opinions without any reservations.
“I work because I love my job, find joy in it and, as of now, enjoy it even more. I’m happy to spend more time preparing for my roles. I work for passion. Things will happen if they’re meant to, and if not, they won’t. I’m in no hurry to pursue anything.”
Our conversation began with the crowning moment when Leung won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 80th Venice Film Festival. Director Ang Lee, who collaborated with Leung on the 2007 film Lust, Caution, presented the award to him, but not before delivering an emotional speech that moved the usually reserved actor to tears. As Leung wiped away his tears, he noted that it wasn’t just Lee’s speech that moved him but, more importantly, the realisation of how much he meant to the director.
During their collaboration on Lust, Caution, the two became close friends. Lee enabled the actor to unravel his deepest emotions, allowing him to manifest and portray the unbridled grief that made his character so authentic. And if it weren’t for the intrinsic trust between the two, making a film like that would never have been possible. Even though Leung and Lee do not frequently cross paths, the depth of their friendship speaks volumes.“I am but an actor when I’m filming. I become oblivious to what people think of me and I don’t consciously try to please the crowd. Therefore, upon hearing Ang Lee’s opinion of me, I became aware of how others perceived me and it was a very touching moment. As I accepted the award, many friends from the European film industry gave me a long-standing ovation. At that point in time, I couldn’t help but feel that I had finally justified 41 years of hard work,” Leung shares about his journey. “For me, the most important thing in life has never been about being accountable to someone else, but instead taking responsibility for our actions.The only person we need to be answerable to is ourselves because we are living for ourselves, and at the end of the day, we would be the only ones left to judge us.”
Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai once mentioned in one of his rare interviews that “Tony Leung is a reserved kind of actor. He graciously allows others to bask in the limelight before masterfully seizing his own moment.” Adding to this ode to Leung’s ingenuity as an actor, Lee also shared his poetic perspective: “The reason why Tony Leung is exceptional is that he is like water that flows effortlessly to the lowest point—channelling his talent, like a tranquil stream that flows with grace and power, to wherever his craft demands.”
Despite international acclaim and the many accolade sunder his belt, including the recent Golden Lion Award he clinched as well as other prestigious awards from Cannes, the Asian Film Awards, three Golden Horse awards from Taiwan and another five from the Hong Kong Film Awards, Leung remains the epitome of humility, politeness and unassuming demeanour. In a celebrity-centric world, where megastars often have their heads in the clouds, he radiates a humble, literati-like aura that is akin to a genuine craftsman. I asked Leung if receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Film Festival felt like reaching a new pinnacle in life.He shrugs it off with a smile: “I don’t know about that. Winning an award has never felt like it could change my life. I’ll probably put the trophy away after a month and not allow myself to look at it again. I don’t like looking at trophies because then I can no longer make progress. I don’t need to be reminded of what’s already good; instead, I remind myself of what needs improvement. I’m not someone who seeks professional peaks. I work because I love my job, find joy in it and, as of now, enjoy it even more. I’m happy to spend more time preparing for my roles. I work for passion. Things will happen if they’re meant to, and if not, they won’t. I’m in no hurry to pursue anything.”
The first time Leung captured the international audience’s attention was in 1989 when he starred in the widely acclaimed City of Sadness, directed by the legendary Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien. At that time, Leung, in his 20s, was primarily involved in filming TV dramas in Hong Kong. While he had gained some recognition, he was far from being an A-list celebrity. Due to his strong Cantonese accent and limited proficiency in Mandarin, Hou cast him as a deaf-mute character, restricting expressions to the eyes and body language. This unusual decision turned out to be a brilliant move that unleashed Leung’s potential as an actor.
For Leung, Hou was akin to a first mentor. “At that time, I could neither speak nor understand Mandarin. Apart from filming, I spent most of my time reading in the hotel room. Initially, I delved into Taiwanese history and Hou soon discovered my avid reading habit. He started giving me a variety of books, introducing me to Japanese, Chinese and Western literature. I realised the vast difference between literature and popular novels; the former is crafted with far more finesse and there was much more room for imagination. That’s when I fell in love with literary works. Later, I also recognised the profound impact literature had on me, becoming a significant source of inspiration.”
But Hou’s influence over Leung went beyond that. After filming City of Sadness alongside amateur actors, he realised, upon watching replays, how spontaneous and natural the acting of his counterparts was. In stark contrast, he found his own acting to be contrived and overly stylised. “From then on, I started adjusting my performance, seeking a balance between acting and authenticity. Hong Kong cinema originated from Guangdong (Canton) and is deeply rooted in Cantonese opera, where theatrics were heavily emphasised on stage. During that time, I worked primarily in television and due to the small size of the TV screens back then, our expressions had to be more dramatic. On a dim movie screen, however, the kind of acting I was used to seemed completely overblown and didn’t align well with the realistic performances of my fellow actors in City of Sadness. So, I began toning down and did away with unnecessary embellishments.” This transformative process of distilling the essence from the extraneous proved to be an epiphany for Leung. Not only did he learn the art of acting from ‘non-actors’, he was also able to delve into the intricate layers of emotional depth that only literature could evoke. By shedding superfluous theatrics from his acting style, Leung gradually transitioned from ‘giving a performance’ to ‘conveying genuine emotions’, emerging as a compelling leading man in the realm of arthouse films. He was able to expertly demonstrate the nuanced art of conveying profound narratives solely through the windows of his soul. It was possibly this evolution, perhaps nurtured by this invaluable experience in Taiwan, that caught Wong’s discerning eye. His delight with Leung’s performance in Days of Being Wild the following year marked the inception of a two-decade collaboration between the two.
As noted by Lee, Leung is widely recognised in the cinematic world for his portrayal of sentimental male leads in Wong’s films. Characters such as the gentle and poised Chow Mo-Wan from Days of Being Wild and In The Mood For Love, the handsome police officer ‘663’ in Chungking Express, the carefree Yiu-Fai in Happy Together, and the dignified and composed Ip Man in The Grandmaster have left an indelible mark on audiences. Over the years, Leung’s performances in these roles have not only captivated an entire generation of literary youths and film enthusiasts, but have also played a significant role in shaping the homoerotic realm of films that Wong and Leung are renowned for.
Furthermore, the two are like soulmates, complementing each other and bringing to life, on the big screen, the melancholic romanticism that Wong is a master of. Reflecting on his 41-year acting career, Leung mentions that the lowest point he experienced was, in fact, before he met Wong. “At that time, I felt that I had hit a roadblock because my knowledge and talent were not enough to sustain my performances. Then, Wong Kar-Wai appeared. After watching the closing scene of Days of Being Wild, I realised that he was a director who could bring out the best in me, and thus, we embarked on a two-decade collaboration. I always feel extremely blessed to have met him.”
“At the beginning, it felt like I finally found a job where I could release all my pent-up emotions. I found acting cathartic. Later, I gradually fell in love with acting because it benefited me in many ways and enabled me to greatly broaden my horizon.”
In the early days of their acquaintance, Leung would bring two bottles of wine to Wong’s office nearly every night, and they would listen to music together, drink and chat. A deep connection eventually blossomed between the two, saving the need for adjustments when working together on set. “I truly cherish those 20 years,” Leung quips. Wong brought forth the most charismatic aspects of Leung and vice versa. Leung accentuated Wong’s works with a glimmer of humanity, infusing them with his distinctive, soulful depth. Describing his rapport with the director, Leung remarks: “Our thoughts are very similar and mostly resonate on the same wavelength. There was never a need to converse much. I intuitively understood what he expects from me as an actor. This inherent connection between us is also why we were able to collaborate for such a long time.”
“Actors are, in essence, masochists. How else can one rationalise spending day in and day out delving into the depths of emotion, crying, laughing, breaking down, performing demanding acts and even jumping off a roof? You’re literally toying with your own emotions,” reflects Leung. But for someone like Leung, who is reserved, low-key, shy and used to bottling up his emotions and maintaining a certain distance from the rest of the world, we wonder why he would he fall in love with the idea of being an actor, a profession that would subject him to public attention. “At the beginning, it felt like I finally found a job where I could release all my pent-up emotions. I found acting cathartic. Later, I gradually fell in love with acting because it benefited me in many ways and enabled me to greatly broaden my horizon. Thanks to the varying roles I’m required to portray, I end up reading a variety of books and imperceptibly gain knowledge across different fields,” he explains.
Has he ever encountered setbacks or moments when he wanted to give up over the four decades in the movie industry? Leung replies: “Frankly, I rarely face setbacks because I believe that with dedication and practice, nothing is impossible. It’s just a matter of time and the accumulation of experiences. For instance, I am currently reading in preparation for a new role. While someone like a neuroscientist may finish reading that book in just three days, it might take me a month. However, I will still be able to complete it eventually. As long as you’re willing to take the time to work hard and practice, I wouldn’t consider it a ‘setback’,’’ he says.
Interestingly, Leung relishes the idea of setbacks. If one sails through life smoothly without challenges, it can become daunting when obstacles finally arise. “I believe setbacks are good for us; they teach us how to confront difficult situations and find success in failure. Setbacks should be regarded as valuable life lessons,” he says.
Leung goes on about the reddish welt on his neck, a ‘souvenir’ from a jellyfish sting while diving the day before. Those familiar with him are well aware of his passion for sports, a habit that developed from his filmmaking pursuits. After all, acting is a physically demanding profession, often involving work days that stretch beyond 10 hours as filming a single scene might require numerous takes. All this underscores the importance of maintaining his physical fitness and mental resilience at peak condition.
Despite turning 60 a year ago, Leung radiates vitality, a testament to his commitment to regular exercise and a mindful diet. Stemming from his extensive acting career, he has delved into a plethora of sports, ranging from running, hiking, sailing and skiing to diving, enjoying the satisfaction of physical exertion and sweating it out.
His daily routine involves waking up at 6am, after which he spends two hours exercising, followed by another two hours of reading. He then prepares and has lunch, and later does water sports. In the evening, he either catches a movie or continues his reading before finally going to bed. For several months a year he resides in Japan because he fell in love with skiing 30 years ago and has since gone on to explore ski resorts all over the country. Thanks to the local culture, even if passers-by were to recognise him, it is unlikely for them to strike up a conversation.
“Perhaps due to this, I find that I’m able to reclaim more personal space in Japan, especially during the summer when Hokkaido is nearly devoid of tourists. The streets are quiet and I can live like ordinary folk. I’m familiar with my neighbours and always feel the warmth of human connections around me.” He recounts an incident after an earthquake, when his neighbourhood experienced water and power outages. A couple drove over to his place and got their child to hand him a hot bowl of udon. This kind of empathy is what Leung has always yearned for and the human element is often a key motivation behind considering new projects.
In July, the music video for the new hit ‘Cool With You’ by South Korean girl group NewJeans sparked intense discussions online, and the reason behind the buzz was none other than Leung. Despite appearing for only a few seconds in the video, portraying a silver-haired character, he left a profound impression with his expressive eyes. Many intrigued viewers even played the video repeatedly, revelling in the fleeting moments of his enigmatic presence. This surprising stint happened because Leung’s good friend in South Korea, who has been his interpreter at the Busan Film Festival since 1997, was acquainted with NewJeans’ agency.
Initially, Leung did not respond to his friend’s text messages.“I don’t usually do music videos,” he shares. “But after more than 10 days of leaving the messages unread, I felt bad. Upon reviewing the storyline of the music video, I was intrigued and decided to approach the crew. I agreed to be a part of the music video under three conditions: firstly, they would have to film wherever I was; secondly, they would have no say on the styling of the character; and lastly, they only had two hours to wrap everything up.” Thus, the entire crew of the music video travelled to Tokyo, where Leung was at that time, and completed his sequence using a green screen. Expectedly, the end result surpassed expectations and will undeniably become one of the most iconic scenes in the history of music videos.
Beaming with joy, Leung also generously let me in on the project he’s currently preparing for. He will soon work together with Golden Bear award recipient and prominent Hungarian filmmaker, Ildiko Enyedi, on her upcoming project, Silent Friend.
“Right now, my biggest wish is to be able to work with directors from different countries. Enyedi is a highly intellectual director, whom I’ve always held in high regard. I didn’t expect her to create this role of a neuroscientist specifically for me. I have already taken part in Taiwanese, Mainland Chinese, Hong Kong and Hollywood productions, but not yet done a European film. This would be a novel experience for me.”
In fact, Leung’s primary motivation behind joining the Marvel blockbuster Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings revolved around the human element. Usually not the most enthusiastic about making commercial films, he received an invitation from the movie’s director, Destin Daniel Cretton, to participate. After several months of consideration and with encouragement from his wife, Carina Lau, he finally responded to the phone call.
“He (Cretton) grew up in Hawaii and is very down-to-earth. Apparently, he really liked the work that I did with Wong Kar-Wai. After chatting with him, I felt he was someone I could trust. Even though it’s Marvel’s practice not to reveal the script before an actor signs the contract, I felt a connection with Cretton and saw him as an earnest individual. When it comes to work, ‘people’ is an aspect I place a lot of value upon,” Leung explains.
“What’s truly special is the present. People should neither dwell on the past nor have expectations of the future. Because eventually, the future will become our present. We should therefore embrace the now and seize the moment.”
“I like Taipei very much, but there’s just an overload of paparazzi all over the city,” Leung remarks as our interview comes to an end.
I am reminded of the concluding scene in Happy Together, where the audience experiences a rapid train journey along Taipei’s Muzha MRT line, set to the eponymous theme song. In those frames, there is an interplay of light and shadow, harmonising with the bustling voices of Liaoning Street NightMarket, accentuated by reflections cast by the rain on the train’s windows. It was all very quintessentially Wong Kar-Wai and it happened in 1997.
While much has evolved over time, some things have remained constant, such as the rain that falls over Taipei and Leung’s enduring status as one of the most outstanding actors of his generation. That said, nothing has deterred him from pursuing greater achievements.
“What’s truly special is the present. People should neither dwell on the past nor have expectations of the future. Because eventually, the future will become our present. We should therefore embrace the now and seize the moment,” he concludes.
And as ardent fans, we should count our blessings for having the opportunity to live through the current era, when Leung continues to captivate and dazzle.
APAC Editorial Director Leslie Sun
Editor-in-chief Desmond Lim
Photographer Cho Gi-Seok
Features director and story Nicole Lee
Styling and fashion managing editor Chen Yu
Make-up Wi11 Wong
Hair George Wong
Producer Cyrus Lai
Production manager and team Anson Ng, Monkey Lee, Bryan Loo, Lesley Chan, Jaffie Sin
Gaffer and team Bo, Cliff, TK Chris Chiu
Art director and team Chan Brun, Kensa Hung, Cecil Lee, Annebell Chan
Set builder Endy Tse
Talent Tony Leung
Talent manager Sylvie Yeh
Translation Zhuan Lee