In order to avoid confusion between one Tony Leung and the other, the Asian film industry has dubbed two of its leading actors, who share the same name "Big Tony" and "Little Tony". Still, these days, it is easier than ever to confuse one for the other. As any cineaste will tell you, the one Tony Leung (Ka Fai), aka Big Tony, is best known for playing in a slew of Hong Kong action films. This includes the cop thriller Eye In The Sky, in which he leads a gang of jewellery thieves, and Johnnie To's Election, in which he portrays a character hellbent on running Hong Kong's oldest Triad gang.
The other Tony Leung (Chiu Wai), meanwhile, has been called the Clark Gable of Asia. "Little Tony" is best-known for art-house films, such as Chungking Express in which he played a lonely policeman; the relationship road movie Happy Together; and In the Mood for Love, a tale of forbidden passion set in 1960s Hong Kong, which won Leung a best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. All three were directed by his regular collaborator, the Hong Kong auteur, Wong Kar Wai.
So when I was summoned in Cannes this year to interview one Tony Leung about an upcoming film on Bruce Lee's kung-fu master, Ip Man, I assumed, in the midst of the mayhem, that I was interviewing the former Leung, rather than the latter. I walked to the Hong Kong Pavilion at the appointed hour, thinking up questions about martial arts. Was it a prerequisite to master one of these ancient practices in order to succeed at acting in Hong Kong? Did the acting part really matter? What did he eat for breakfast?
After quizzing a flustered-looking reporter waiting patiently on the terrace, I realised that the man I was about to meet was not the action hero. It was the other Tony Leung. To confirm his standing as one of Asia's biggest heartthrobs, fans wandered along the beach to Leung's hideout where he politely stopped to sign autographs. "I can't go anywhere," he said with a smile accentuating his handsome looks.
I fled to a nearby computer to look up Little Tony's upcoming credits and face the fact that I was about to be meet the star of one of my all-time favourite movies, somewhat unprepared. (I told him the favourite movies part a little while later, through a translator, and he smiled once again.) Why would Little Tony and not Big Tony be making a film about a martial arts guru? I figured my original theory must have had some mileage - that all Hong Kong actors must be experts in ancient fighting systems.
"Hong Kong actors have to be flexible and be able to do everything," Leung, 47, explained in English, followed by another smile and silent gaze. I detected a quiet intensity beneath his casual outfit - tennis shirt and jeans - and friendly manner. These are exactly the sort of layers that would lead to such a subtle and moving performance as he gave in In The Mood For Love. "They have to be able to do comedy, drama, television and martial arts," he said.
During our conversation it emerged that Leung has had his fill of what he called "hard-core" films. "I wanted to do something different, a kung-fu movie," he said, adding that he and Wai, who will direct the film, titled Grand Master, had planned this some six years ago, long before the release of the 2008 film on the same subject, Ip Man directed by Wilson Yip. Leung asked Wai for six months to prepare the role for which he has spent three hours a day practising.
Filming Grand Master should be different for Leung in other ways, too. Although Wai is known for working without a script, this film will be scripted. "It is not a problem for me to work (without a script) with Wong Kar Wai," said Leung. "But other actors complain that they feel insecure. You just have to trust in him. It is like trusting in life where you don't know what is happening tomorrow." Working with the A-Z of Asian directors, Leung's recent films include Ang Lee's Second World War espionage thriller Lust, Caution. "It is totally different working with Ang Lee," he said. "He gives you a lot of advice so you feel more secure."
Leung was most recently seen in the Chinese epic Red Cliff, directed by John Woo, who he describes as a "great storyteller". At $80 million (Dh294m), its has been called the most expensive film ever financed out of Asia. I asked Leung if it worried him to carry that weight on his shoulders? "Forget the most expensive film in Chinese history, think the whole of Asian history, ever," said Leung, becoming animated for a moment and not seeming at all concerned. Then he gave a sheepish admission, delivered in a straightforward manner. "Actually, I hate costume movies," he said. "It is very tough to shoot in the summertime and wear costumes and make-up. I just did it for John when he told me it was his dream."
The film follows the battle of Red Cliffs and other key events at the end of the Hahn Dynasty immediately prior to the beginning of The Three Kingdoms period in the third century AD. Leung took top billing as the grand viceroy Zhou Yu. Red Cliff was released in two parts in Asia and as one film elsewhere, and has so far grossed over $228 million (Dh837m) worldwide, so Leung can indeed relax about it. The first part of the film grossed more than $124 million (Dh455m) in Asia and broke the box-office record, previously held by Titanic, in China.
Leung got his break in acting playing in the Hong Kong television comedy Police Cadet after hosting the children's television show 430 Space Shuttle in the early 1980s. He made his international breakthrough with Hou Hsiao-Hsien's 1989 film A City of Sadness, which won the Golden Lion in Venice. Wai then cast him in a number of good-guy roles in his artsy films. When I quizzed a Hong Kong producer about Leung that night on how he is seen in his home country, she said: "It is so funny to think of Leung as an art-house star. I always remember him from all of these television series long ago."
A City of Sadness seems to have left a different impression in the West and the films that followed may have acted as a release for his most complex emotions. Leung, who married the Hong Kong actress Carina Lau last year, was raised by his mother after his father, a gambler, left the family when Leung was eight. "When I was a child, I didn't know how to express my emotions," he said. "When I began acting this changed. This is something that I can do in front of the camera, but not in real life."
He then added that his acting is "influenced by everything in real life". But for his current role he is focusing on the physical aspect. "Through training the body you can get into the character," he explained. "I now know why Bruce Lee was so great." Still, after 26 years in front of the camera, Leung wants a new challenge. He is preparing for his first film as a producer, which he hopes to make directly after Grand Master. "I have always wanted to produce," he said. "I have done too many hard-core films like Lust, Caution recently and want to do something more positive. This will be a comedy. Something with a more positive message."
Leung is looking into co-producing in China, from where his family hails. "We can have more space if we do this and have more funding," he said, adding that it is a major trend in Hong Kong collaborate with China. "There are a lot of topics and themes that fall under censorship," he said. "We have to make sure that the contracts are suitable for all and that there is some give and take." Producing may provide a welcome break for Leung in other ways too. "Sometimes it is really hard to know who I am because the characters go so deep," he said. "You often try and forget and be yourself but then in interviews you are asked about certain characters and you recall them when you want to be yourself."
As I get up to leave, Leung stands for some more photos and calmly signs more autographs. "I have to stay at home or stay on my boat so that there is no paparazzi, no photos taken and no autographs that need signing," he said with a charming smile.