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Movie Master

Tony Leung Ka Fai shows off taiji skills as Master Chen in a marital arts movie which takes its cue from comics and video games. (PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE)

Publication Date : 03-10-2012


If you are a fresh young actor in Hong Kong looking for opportunities to hone your skills to become a proper star, you are pretty much in a big fix.

Though veteran Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Ka Fai did not say those words exactly, he was completely stumped when asked what young actors in his hometown could do to propel themselves to the next level. The Hong Kong film and TV industry has been ailing in recent years.

In Singapore to promote his new movie, the Chinese production Taichi 0, the 54-year-old sat back on the couch during the interview with Life! and paused for a good minute in deep thought.

“That is a seriously good question. I really don’t know how to answer that,” Leung finally replies, in a mix of Mandarin and English.

“I have no idea where they can possibly go to hone themselves in Hong Kong. I just know that the problem exists, but I don’t know what the solution is.” The problem he refers to is the current dearth of young leading stars in Hong Kong who can take over from older ones such as himself, should they retire from the industry.

Continuing to mull over the question, he says: “The so-called ‘younger’ stars now are probably people like Nicholas Tse and Louis Koo, but they’re actually not even that young anymore. Nicholas is young but he already has children, so he will have other responsibilities. So how much longer can they really do big-time action flicks, for example?

“If we’re talking about a true young leading star, the only person I can think of now is Aarif Rahman. Other than that... there is no one else in Hong Kong at the moment. It’s not good. If we don’t groom any people now, there will really be none left to take over in the future.”

Tse is 32, Koo, 41, and Rahman, 25.

Leung then adds jokingly: “Maybe when I stop acting one day, I will think about becoming a film director and properly come up with ways to groom young stars. Right now, I’m just an actor. I cannot do so much.”

Should he really make it his goal to groom the stars of the future, you can be sure he will put his all into it, judging by the way he goes about tirelessly promoting his current project.

Starring Leung alongside Angelababy, Eddie Peng and rookie Yuan Xiaochao, Taichi 0 - Stephen Fung’s martial arts-meets-steam-punk work, the first in a planned trilogy - is about a young man’s journey to mastering the art of taiji. Steam punk is a genre of fiction that incorporates science fiction, fantasy and futuristic elements in a Victorian setting.

Dressed in a casual black tee, yellow blazer and black thick-framed glasses, Leung is friendly, chatty and clearly in a cheerful mood throughout the interview. He ponders over every media question carefully and gives insightful, thoughtful answers.

And, being a professional at the film promotion game, he directs every topic of discussion back to his new movie.

When forced to elaborate on a certain point that he had quickly digressed from to talk once more about the film, he says in jest with a laugh: “If you did not keep reminding me about these things, I think I would have forgotten about them completely.”

One of the key reasons Hong Kong is losing so much talent and opportunity is that people are flocking to China for work.

Increasingly, film talents from around the region such as Hong Kong and Taiwan are interested in collaborating with production houses in China, as these companies have both the money and labour to make big-budget projects.

Taichi 0 is one such example: Made on a budget of over 100 million yuan (US$16 million), the film, which stars talents from the region, is produced by Chinese film company giant Huayi Brothers.

It premiered at Venice Film Festival last month out of competition, the only Chinese film screened at the event this year.

Unabashedly, Leung says that he is only interested in filming such big movies these days.

“Those small movies watched only by the people in Hong Kong or Taiwan - I don’t have much interest in them,” he says, unless, their scripts are “really, really good”, like the one for Hong Kong cop thriller Cold War, opening in cinemas here later this month. He stars in Cold War with Aaron Kwok.

For years, he adds, he had considered retirement, until the possibility for major co-productions came along. “In Hong Kong, the cinema culture is not the same as before. People just don’t go to the theatres to watch movies anymore - they download or watch online. So I used to wake up every morning, thinking, ‘What is the point of me acting, when no one will watch?’

“Only when these co-productions started getting underway, I realised that there is new life in films. We finally have the chance and the resources to make these big movies that will be watched, not only by Chinese people, but hopefully by Western audiences, too. I’ve always wanted to be able to promote Chinese culture to outside audiences through film, and these co-productions are the way to do that. It’s time they watched our movies too.”

The pride he takes in Chinese culture and being Chinese is apparent, given that the actor never went to find more work in Western markets even though he had the chance to do so after filming the much-talked-about drama The Lover (1992). Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, the film had him in the role of a rich Chinese businessman caught up in a steamy love affair with a teenage French girl, and was nominated in seven categories at France’s Cesar Awards in 1993.

Leung says: “After that movie, I received a lot of offers from Western directors, but 85 per cent of the scripts were for me to play the same type of role again, to play a Chinese lover.

“If that is the only way the Western audience was going to see me, then I’m not interested. I want to present a multifaceted Tony Leung to the world. So I decided to stay with the Chinese film industry, and do a lot of different roles. The Western audience has already seen me as a Chinese lover. Now with this movie, they can see me as a taiji master.”

Leung, who debuted in 1981 as a graduate of Hong Kong TV broadcaster TVB’s actor training programme alongside other stars such as Andy Lau and Carrie Ng, is one of Hong Kong’s most prolific and respected film actors.

In his almost-three-decade career, he has appeared in more than 100 films, many of which have won him acclaim and awards. One of his most memorable roles is that of hot-tempered triad boss Big D in crime film Election (2005), a part that earned him the award for Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

He has also won the same award for his performances in Burning Of The Imperial Palace (1983), 92 La Legendary Rose Noire (1992), as well as the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Supporting Actor for Men Suddenly In Black (2003). In 1990, he had also received the prestigious Golden Horse award for Best Actor for Farewell China (1990), in the role of a Chinese immigrant in New York City.

Such awards are bonuses for actors, “like getting a good grade in your school reports”, the actor says.

He adds: “But I’m not very interested in getting awards for Best Actor now. I’m more hopeful that the films I act in get awards for Best Film instead. I gain more satisfaction if the whole film crew gets recognised. Movies are a team effort, you know.” Whether or not Taichi 0 is award-worthy, it gave him the chance to try his hand at martial arts.

“I’ve done so many different roles, and so many different types of movies, except for martial arts. I just wanted to try it and see what the experience was like, and I think I did a pretty decent job,” he says with a chuckle, before quickly standing up to show off a few taiji moves.

He did not find the 2 1/2-month gongfu training for the film too tough, he adds. Though eager to talk about movies and acting, he is decidedly more reluctant to discuss his family.

The actor, who is married to a radio producer, with whom he has twin 20-year-old daughters, has kept a very low profile in terms of personal matters, which is very different from those of his generation such as Andy Lau and Aaron Kwok who have been swept up by gossip about their relationships and family life.

The only thing Leung will say about his daughters is, once more, in reference to the movie, or in this case, specifically his co-star, Taiwanese actor Eddie Peng. With a laugh, he says: “I really admire Eddie, as a person as well as an actor. He is so diligent and smart and an all-around nice guy. I’ve worked so well with him that I almost treat him like half a son. In fact, I would totally love him to be a son-in-law, if possible. Who wouldn’t, really?”


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