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Ip Man of mystery
Publication Date : 25-01-2013
Tony Leung had it easier in his latest Wong Kar Wai film as he actually knew who his character was
Tony Leung Chiu Wai brushes off the several injuries he suffered, including a broken arm, while filming The Grandmaster.
"Getting injured is no big deal because you can get injured doing normal exercises as well," he says with a shrug while in town this week to promote the martial arts film.
Perhaps, just perhaps, for an actor who is serious about his craft, like Leung is, getting an arm broken accidentally is nothing compared with having no clue about the role that you are playing in a movie. At least the pain he felt was as real as the motivations and character of the man he was portraying in The Grandmaster.
After making six movies with director Wong Kar Wai, he almost sounds grateful that he finally had a concrete idea of his character while filming their seventh collaboration, The Grandmaster.
In the movie, Leung plays famed martial arts expert Ip Man, Bruce Lee's teacher in real life, who has been documented in numerous books and films.
Leung, 50, says in Mandarin with a grin: "This was the first time I knew who my character was, and had such a clear notion of the man. When you work with Wong Kar Wai, he won't really tell you what the story is. He will give you the day's script, or the script for the scene, and then you just go with that.
"But at least I know who Ip Man is. Both Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen wouldn't have really known who they were playing, though. I'm the luckiest actor of the lot."
In the film, which opens in Singapore next week, China actress Zhang and Taiwanese actor Chang play the fictional characters of Gong Er and Razor, two of the gongfu experts in China whom Ip Man has encounters with.
Recalling his past movies with Wong, Leung adds with a chuckle: "Sometimes, I wouldn't even know what some parts of my movies with Wong were about, until journalists pointed them out to me and asked whether some scenes had certain meanings. Then I'd be like, what, really?"
His comments are unsurprising. Wong's films are hailed for their sumptuous visual aesthetics and mood-setting par excellence, with clear-cut characterisation and storyline taking a backseat.
The Shanghai-born arthouse filmmaker's most famous works include Days Of Being Wild (1991), for which he won Best Director at the Golden Horse Awards; Happy Together (1997), which won him Best Director at Cannes Film Festival; and In The Mood For Love (2000), which won Leung the Best Actor prize at Cannes.
In a separate interview, Wong, who was also in Singapore to promote the movie, is quick to say Leung is "only joking" about being relatively clueless while shooting their films before The Grandmaster.
But he concedes: "The thing is, what I want from the actors is for them to give me the very best interpretations of their characters, and how do you get the best? You get that if the characters are custom- made for the actors.
"So the way I work is, I give them some general instructions and let them bring something of their own to the roles, and then we meet somewhere in the middle. That is how you will get something really fantastic."
That way of working - workshopping characters even as filming takes place - is also a reason why Wong's films often take many years to be completed.
His intricate attention to detail is another reason why his movie projects are often delayed and prolonged, something he has become known for.
The Grandmaster took him four years to make, as he filmed additional scenes after principal shooting had long ended. The finished film was reportedly sent to China's censors for clearance only hours before its first press screening in Beijing.
His movie 2046 (2004), considered a loose sequel to Days Of Being Wild and In The Mood For Love with time-travel elements, took four years to film, and premiered at Cannes with film reels delivered to the festival straight from the processing lab. There were so many delayed schedules and additional, drawn-out shoots that a running joke among the crew was that the film would be completed only in the year 2046.
Wong is in on the joke about his tardiness in delivering new works on time - the vow he constantly makes to himself to spend less time on every new film meets the same fate as so many people's New Year resolutions.
"With every new movie that I do, I always tell myself that I have to spend less time on it. But things happen, and not everything goes according to your plans. Environmental factors can be a problem, for example, so you have to keep adjusting your schedule for your film," he says.
The Grandmaster was shot all over China over four years in extreme conditions, from freezing blizzards in Shenyang to blistering heat in Guangdong province.
Shooting a lengthy fight scene in torrential rain reportedly took 30 consecutive days, a period during which the cast and crew barely had any time to rest.
Wong, 56, admits that working so long and hard is taking a toll on his health, especially given his age.
"Back then, I was still young. Now, I'm not that young guy anymore. While filming The Grandmaster, my back went from a curve of 89 degrees down to 60 degrees," says Wong, who is married with one 16-year-old son.
According to other reports, actress Zhang had said that the film crew had to design a special chair for Wong just so that he could sit upright properly due to his back pain.
Talk of ageing leads Wong to half-joke that Leung, the leading man he has used most often, is also "getting old".
"Years ago, when Tony could not sleep, he would take walks in the middle of the night, and I would see him holding a bottle of alcohol. But now, when he can't sleep, I see him walking around with a hot water bottle and a lot of medicine."
Leung is not the only actor whom Wong likes to cast repeatedly in his films. Maggie Cheung has acted in five of Wong's works, starting in 1989 with As Tears Go By.
The Grandmaster's two other stars, Zhang and Chang, are also repeat collaborators. Zhang starred in 2046, while Chang took part in Happy Together, 2046 and short film segment The Hand (2004), which was featured in anthology work Eros.
Wong enjoys working with these same talents because they are more than just excellent performers - they also bring a little "something extra" in their attitudes.
Leung and Zhang, whom he single out for special mention, are "clear professionals" who are ready to shoot and reshoot a scene as long as the director deems necessary.
"After they finish filming a scene, they go off to the side but they won't sit down immediately. It's because they don't want to wrinkle their costumes. So they stand and check if everything is all right first, before they rest.
"It's this kind of attitude that is just so admirable. I always tell the younger actors that they must learn from people like Tony and Zhang Ziyi."
Never mind the exacting demands he makes of his stars - Leung has no complaints. He says: "I've never considered acting as a job. I enjoy it, so I will always do my very best as an actor. At least I feel no pressure in anything else - that's all for the director to handle."
Despite being known as a dramatic actor, Leung also had no qualms about taking on a heavy gongfu role in The Grandmaster.
He says ever so coolly: "I have never doubted my ability to take on the role. There is nothing you can't do. For this movie, for example, I had to learn gongfu, which I'd never done before.
"Maybe for some people, it would take them one year to train for it. If I couldn't do it in that time, then I could eventually learn it if I trained two, three or five years, right? You put in the effort, and you will be able to accomplish what you want to achieve."
Leung trained in the Wing Chun style of martial arts for four years under Master Duncan Leung Siu Hung, who was a disciple of Ip Man himself.
Wong's verdict on his star's gongfu training: "He has even exceeded all my expectations for the role."
Leung, who is married to actress Carina Lau, is one of Hong Kong's most celebrated thespians. Apart from Wong's films, some of his other notable works include Infernal Affairs (2002), and Lust, Caution (2008). He has a string of acting awards, including Golden Horse awards for Best Actor for Infernal Affairs and Lust, Caution.
Known for his soulful, intelligent gazes, he is often described as an actor who "uses his eyes to do the acting".
It is ironic then that Wong, on the other hand, is known for always wearing sunglasses, which he says are his "only pair". The film-maker is rarely ever seen in public without them on.
You then ask him if he could take them off for the reporters and show off his own electrifying gaze a la Leung.
Wong laughs and says: "I'd rather save my gaze only for my wife."