Tony! Tony! Tony!
Whether Tony Leung represents director Wong Kar-wai's muse or his avatar, the fact is: As Tony goes, so goes the film. For In the Mood for Love, Leung was wide open--too much so, according to some critics. In 2046, he is, for long stretches, a wind tunnel. This viewer feels the difference in her chest (and feels precisely the moment in the latter film when Leung's Mr. Chow begins to shut out the wind in order to hear his own keening). Leung's performance in 2046 may be the most subtle of a subtle actor's career, and yet it is a work of cumulative beauty: shifting believably from the first scenes' greasy carapace of a playboy to the stinging point near the end where Chow confesses to Ziyi Zhang's Bai Ling that he can no longer rent out his body to strangers.
I met Leung in a private dining room of Cosmos. Mine was his last interview of a long press day in Minneapolis, with a plane trip to follow, but Leung was unfailingly attentive, even moving quickly to open the honey jar for my tea. When I asked him if the presence of Japanese pop star Takuya Kimura in 2046 was an acknowledgment of the 43-year-old Leung's diminishing draw with younger audiences, he looked quizzically at me with those deep brown eyes, as if wondering where I had disappeared. Otherwise he was soft-spoken and considered, with a rising laugh that hinted at getting giddy somewhere far from an interview.
City Pages: I read that for you and Maggie Cheung, watching In the Mood for Love was a painful experience: You had filmed so much, and so little of it was on the screen. Was that true for 2046?
Tony Leung: It was the same. And much more...scary. A few days before [the world premiere in] Cannes, we were still doing the dubbing.
CP: One criticism of 2046 has been that the characters are not as sympathetic as in In the Mood for Love, and the story is not as engaging.
Leung: I don't know how you can compare [the two films]. In the Mood for Love is a very straightforward love story, so it's easy for the audience to follow it. 2046 is a story about love. So it doesn't have a specific direction. It's just a kind of feeling. At the same time, it can also relate to Kar-wai's previous movies. Like the cab scene: I related that to me and Maggie in In the Mood for Love--and me and Leslie [Cheung] in Happy Together. You can call  a summary of all [Wong's] movies.
CP: Much has been written about the painful, drawn-out process of working with Wong Kar-wai--the lack of a script, the sudden changes in characterization, the endless shooting. Would you say that process is getting more messy?
Leung: You can say more messy because there are more actors [in 2046]. Every one of them is a big star in Asia, and the scheduling conflicts caused big problems. [Wong] still works very much like before. I've gotten used to it. Newcomers [to his sets] find it very frustrating [laughs]. The more [actors], the more counseling I have to do.
CP: You've said that you've come to trust him more. Do you feel he trusts you more?
Leung: No. I've found that he loves all his actors. That's why they appear so special in his movies. He's a very good observer. He can always explore some qualities [in actors] that sometimes even they are not aware [that they have]. I don't know if it's his method of making movies or his [method of] observation. He's a very sensitive person. After a period of time, an actor will fall very easily into a stereotype. You need to work with somebody else who can give you a different chemistry--to make you change. Sometimes actors have too much power. When a director says, "Follow my direction," some actors have the power to say, "No, I don't want to do that." But if you don't take that challenge, you might miss some surprises. When I work with Kar-wai, he always surprises me.
CP: How did he surprise you in 2046?
Leung: At the very beginning, I think we were trying to do something new. But from the first day he asked me to revisit the character [from In the Mood for Love], the scenes, the colors, everything kept reminding me of the loss. I didn't find anything new. I don't know whether he intends to do that. I think he might intend to do that.
CP: You argued for a moustache to distinguish this version of the character from the other one--because you had such a strong emotional "hangover" [from In the Mood for Love]. Did this [character] hang around a long time, too?
Leung: Yeah. It took me quite a long time to get out of Mr. Chow from 2046. Even when I was doing Tokyo Raiders II last year, [Mr. Chow] still lingered. I still think I'm that man. The director [of Tokyo Raiders II] said, "You are not that guy [in 2046]!"
CP: I've heard it took more than 30 takes to get that amazing kiss with Gong Li.
Leung: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And each take is a thousand feet [of film]. And [Gong] cried more than 30 times.
CP: That's some technique. Or frustration.
Leung: Frustration, probably [laughs].
Also in this issue: Endless Love In '2046,' the world's greatest living filmmaker fails to forget the past by Rob Nelson
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.