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Icons / April 2017

The Grandmaster: Tony Leung

Ed Cripps unfurls why cinematic muse and quietly brilliant actor Tony Leung is the 21st century’s answer to a director’s prayer.

Tony Leung in The Grandmaster, 2013. Photo courtesy of Collection Christophel © Wild bunch Distribution/Alamy.

Tony Leung is the elusive grandmaster of Asian acting, a melancholy tastemaker. Admired by Brad Pitt and Robert De Niro, his unruffled minor-chord charisma has inspired some of Asia’s finest auteurs (Ang Lee, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, John Woo), but most electrifyingly the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, with whom he has worked seven times. The pair have been responsible for some of the most transcendently stylish moments in world cinema over the last twenty years, hazy symphonies of cinematography, fashion, music and emotional mystique.

Leung himself has suggested his mournful disposition stemmed from his parents’ divorce. A cheeky extrovert until they split when Leung was six (a relative rarity in traditional sixties China), he turned inward, reluctant to tell people out of shame. Fortunately, he has since met three life-changing kindred spirits. Leung describes his relationship with Wong Kar-wai as “very strange”. They seldom spend time together or talk on the phone, but just connect: “When he shows me a book he wants to turn into a movie, I already know his feelings about it. I can picture the colour, the movement, the stillness he wants… He's more than just a friend; he's a kind of soulmate”.

He doesn’t appear in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express until about halfway, but from the second Leung turns up at the snack café in his police uniform to ‘California Dreamin’, he shimmers across the screen like steam. Calm, courteous and seductive, he starts a relationship with a flight attendant (never have toy aeroplanes looked more erotic), but keeps missing her at the snack café they both attend, watched by Faye Wong’s lonely waitress. The quirky understatement of the end, centred on a napkin boarding-pass and scored to Wong’s Cantonese cover of The Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’, is as lovely and poignant as The Apartment’s “Shut up and deal”. Quentin Tarantino was so obsessed with Chungking Express that it was the first foreign film he released as part of his Rolling Thunder distribution company (watch him praise it here in this rather sweet DVD intro).

Leung and Wong’s other key collaboration was In The Mood For Love, which Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll acclaimed as the greatest film of the twenty-first century. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play neighbours whose spouses, they realise, are having an affair with each other. To cope, they “play” each other’s partners in an ambiguous charade of how they imagine the affair. It is cinema as music, dreamlike, cello-tempered, muggy with subtext, an unfathomably elegant masquerade of roles-within-roles and frames-within-frames, all orchestrated to the unforgettable Yumeji’s theme, a slow dance to the music of time. Leung has described Cheung as his alter-ego: “Maggie is a truly formidable partner – one to waltz with. We do not spend a lot of time with each other, as we like to keep some mystery between us. Whenever I see her, I discover something new about her”.

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Ed Cripps

Ed is a screenwriter and journalist. His TV CV includes Episodes, Fresh Meat and Made in Chelsea (his first series of which won a BAFTA). In 2016, his piece on The South Bank Show came second in The Observer's Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. In addition to The Rake, he has written for the TLS, MR PORTER and Little White Lies.