Tony Leung, Lifetime Award Winner at Venice, Relishing First European Film Role

Renowned Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai ditched his quiet, brooding persona on Saturday in Venice, where he is to receive a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award.

Instead, at a press conference in his honor, Leung positively gushed about his upcoming first European movie role and about the strengths of the “golden era” acting training he received in Hong Kong in the 1980s.

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Leung has made a speciality of saying little in many of his films. In his first Venice film, “City of Sadness,” Leung pays a mute. In “The Grandmaster” he lets his fists and feet do the talking. In “In the Mood for Love,” Leung’s facial expressions are far more expressive than words.

And on many public occasions, Leung keeps the repartee to a minimum, amps up the soulful glare and goes long on banal gratitude. Awarded the Asian Filmmaker of the Year award at Busan in October, Leung muttered a few thanks, beamed and stepped away from the podium. At the Asian Film Awards in March, where his wife Carina Lau presented him an award for his contribution to Asian cinema, Leung was similarly sheepish, not expansive.

So, in Venice, it was a refreshing change to hear his gravelly tones used at length.

Leung expounded on his lengthy preparation for acting roles. These range from literary research for the non-speaking role in “City of Sadness” through to understanding of the science of neurology for next year’s Ildiko Enyedi film “Silent Friend.”

“I spent a lot of time to prepare my characters. I was brought up to suppress all the feelings inside. I don’t show all my feelings in front of others. But after I got into acting class, I found a way to express myself in front of other people without being shy, because they don’t know that is me. They think I’m playing a character,” said Leung.

“For my next movie in Europe, I plan to spend eight months, because I’m playing a real scientist. I had no idea what neuroscience is. So, I have read a lot of books, and I have gone university hopping … I told the director, I need to do this little-by-little, so I just scan into the characters, unconsciously, after a certain period of time.”

Leung said that he can’t handle more than one role at a time and that he has no particular career plan. “I never plan what I want .. I think fate brings people together … For my next project [Enyedi’s “Silent Friend”] she asked me if I’m interested and after I watch this clip she sent, I think it’s very academic and I’m not sure whether I can do it. Then we have a Zoom meeting together, and I can feel that she’s a very intellectual person, very humble, very down to earth. And after I’ve seen her two previous films including ‘On Body and Soul,’ how could I say no?”

Probed about the revered status of “In the Mood for Love,” which was recently voted the fifth best movie of all time in a U.K. poll, Leung dished a little on the uniquely chaotic process of working with iconic director Wong Kar-wai.

“You never have a complete script. So, you don’t know what to prepare before shooting. It’s very experimental, I can say. So that’s the reason why sometimes we do a scene in a winter costume, the next in a summer costume, then in the restaurant and then at the beach. That’s the reason Wong Kar-wai films sometimes take a few years,” he said.

Leung may have disappointed one audience member on Saturday when he explained that he has not watched many Italian movies since the time he was an acting student at Hong Kong broadcaster TVB. But Leung also credited the intense, on-the-job, training regime for his versatility.

“I started my career in a TV station in Hong Kong. That time was the golden period of television. So, I did a lot of TV series and had a chance to watch all kinds of TV. [That’s why] I can do comedy, drama and action. After the golden age TV, we had the 1990s and the golden era of [Hong Kong] movies. I got a lot of chances working with different kinds of film, different directors and my training helped me shift from comedy to drama to art movies.

Leung said he was looking forward to having a Golden Lion that he “will not have to share with anyone else.” But, asked how he planned to celebrate his win and Leung grinned and retreated to his more private avatar.

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