Tony Leung: Lust actually

Tony Leung is best known for playing a repressed lover in 'In the Mood for Love'. But in Ang Lee's latest film he's finally unleashed his sexuality. And it feels great, he tells Stephen Applebaum

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

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks