Tony Leung is one of Asia's biggest and best-loved stars. He is also one of its most versatile. In his acclaimed body of work with the mercurial film-maker Wong Kar-wai, he is as at home in the martial-arts world of Ashes of Time as in the Sixties Hong Kong of their international breakthrough, the dreamily romantic In the Mood for Love.
Able to make silences speak volumes with just his melancholy eyes, Leung became the ideal avatar of Wong's impressionistic style. Now teamed with the Oscar-winning Taiwanese director Ang Lee, the actor gives one of his strongest performances in Lust, Caution, subverting the good-guy image that he cultivated with Kar-wai. However, it is probably not Leung's acting masterclass that has been pulling in the crowds in Asia. More than likely, it is the film's seven minutes of graphic sex (although not in mainland China, where the scenes have been excised by the censor), the fleshy frankness of which has been generating shock and surprise ever since Lust, Caution's world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September.
This was Leung's first opportunity to view the finished film. "I think I did a great job," he said afterwards, apparently unfazed by the gobsmacked reactions on the Lido. "When I saw it the first time, I tried to focus on myself to see how I did as that character. The second time I watched it, I saw the whole movie, and I think it's great." Did he expect his fans back home to be as tolerant? "I'm curious about how they'll respond," he admits. "I think they expect me to change. They expect me to give them something different in every movie."
This may well be so. I am just not sure that the 45-year-old star appearing naked in highly charged scenes of explicit though not pornographic sex is the kind of "different" anyone had in mind.
Based on a short story by the respected Chinese author Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution offers a handsomely presented tale of patriotism, espionage, love, betrayal and revenge, set during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the Second World War. Newcomer Tang Wei is a star-in-the-making as Wong Chia Chi, an idealistic student who becomes the lynchpin in a plot by radicals to assassinate Leung's traitorous secret-service chief, Mr Yee. As the honeytrap draws the pair closer together, brutal rape gives way to tenderness and love, creating a conflict between will and duty.
When I meet Leung to discuss the film, it appears that even he was astonished by how far Lee wanted to go with the sex. Speaking softly, in Chinese-accented English, he says that the director was coy when they first met. "He didn't mention much at all," Leung says, laughing. "I was quite curious about why he always said, 'There's a love scene.' I said, 'How come you always emphasise this love scene? I do a lot of movies that have love scenes.' Ang said, 'There's a love scene.' I said, 'OK, love scenes are fine for me.' "After three months, when we had to do some rehearsals before shooting, he told me that we were going to do love scenes this way." Leaving little to the imagination, that is. "I said, 'This way? Er, OK. Let's try'." The surprise is still evident in his voice.
Lee says that he found the scenes "extremely painful" to shoot because of the trust he commanded from the actors. Leung is more relaxed, however. "Doing love scenes is always difficult without a strong emotional background. But I think the love scenes in this movie are not just trying to show the bodies of the actors, they're trying to reflect the inner accents of the characters. So it's easier that way." Asked if he did anything to help the less experienced Wei get through them, Leung's reply seems cold. "I didn't have time to help her. I was just trying to help myself."
The hardest aspect of Lust, Caution for him, though, was trying to strip away his usual persona to find something darker and more masculine. Under Lee's guidance, Leung watched films starring Marlon Brando, Richard Burton and Humphrey Bogart, and pored over history books about the Japanese occupation and biographies of secret agents. "I learnt how they functioned and how they worked; I needed to see a lot of documentaries to see how they talked, their gestures, and how they walked.
"Ang wanted me to be a different Tony Leung because the audience is familiar with what I've done before, so I had to change everything. It was very tough. Ang taught me to walk like his father. So my character actually walks like his father."
Leung is well known for immersing himself in his roles. He will take a script home and read it until he has explored every nuance. He does not just act a character, he lives it. Inhabiting Yee's darkness for months on end was difficult, the actor admits. "It was exhausting. Sometimes you just lost your appetite. You're always down. You're always very unhappy. You carry this character. It's very tough. But this is a new experience for me, and I think I had a breakthrough in my career."
Acting has always been more than just a job to Leung. When he entered acting training at the Chinese television channel TVB, aged 19, following a spell selling household appliances, he was painfully shy and reserved. As a child, he had watched his parents bicker constantly, and between the ages of three and six, his father a captain at a nightclub had left home three times, finally for good. "Suddenly, one day, he'd just leave and then maybe he'd come back six months later without telling you why, and then he'd disappear again after a year," Leung recalls. "It's very difficult to understand when you're three or five years old, so you just don't know how to handle it." He never met his father again. "He passed away a few years ago. I know he tried to see me, but my mother didn't want me to see him."
No one in the family talked about what was happening, he says. "In the Sixties, it wasn't that common for people to divorce, so I felt very bad. My mother didn't know how to tell us. And she needed to work because we needed money to live." Leung withdrew into himself. "I shut down all my emotions, I wasn't talkative, I didn't know how to communicate; I just tried to separate myself from people."
Acting provided an outlet for his bottled-up emotions. "I could cry behind a character, I could shout behind a character, and that kind of relief was fun." Acting became an addiction, something he needed. Gradually, though, as he has found other ways of expressing himself, the therapeutic element became less important. "I've enjoyed it more and more in recent years," he says, "because it's more than just using it as an outlet for my emotions or what I suffer. I enjoy doing movies now. That's the only thing I'm really concerned about now, working with really great film-makers, great partners, great actors. It's fun. It's exciting."
It appears he can't get enough of that excitement. Instead of taking a break after Lust, Caution, he moved straight on to Red Cliff, John Woo's historical epic set during the Hang Dynasty, which is being touted as the most expensive film ever produced in China. "It's very tough because it's a war movie and there are lots of people every day," says Leung. "You need an hour for a take because we have a lot of costumes to wear. The weather is very hot and we wear winter costumes, because the war happens in wintertime, and we have to wear armour weighing 20lb."
Already a huge star in Asia, it is surely only a matter of time before the Hong Kong-based actor makes his English-language debut in the West. But despite offers from Hollywood, Leung says he is not in any hurry to head to America. He would like to make at least one film there, but is certainly not looking to increase his fame. "I don't have any privacy anymore and I hate that. And besides work, I just want to be an ordinary person, not to be recognised, not to look like a monkey on the street, with everyone staring at you."
Leung reveals that he and Kar-wai are likely to reunite in 2008 for a project about Bruce Lee's kung-fu master. "We planned to do it five years ago, but I felt quite bored with him," he admits. "We'd been working together for over 10 years, so we needed a break."
It will be interesting to see what emerges. Kar-wai's films are notorious for beginning as one thing and ending up as another. "Maybe it's not a kung-fu movie at all," says Leung, laughing. "Maybe it's another movie about walking on the streets and smoking cigarettes. No more kung fu."
'Lust, Caution' opens on 4 January