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'I Told Kar-wai I Couldn't Move, Couldn't Breathe'
Web-only interview with Hong Kong's leading actor Tony Leung, star of Wong Kar-wai's movie In the Mood for Love

October 11, 2000
Web posted at 3:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 3:30 a.m. EDT

Pascal Guyot/AFP.
Best Actor, Chinese actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai, poses after receiving his trophy for his role in "In The Mood for Love."

Hong Kong's Tony Leung won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in May for his performance in Wong Kar-wai's movie In the Mood for Love, now showing across Asia. He spoke recently with TIME entertainment reporter Stephen Short. Edited excerpts:

TIME: Have you had any movie offers since winning the award in Cannes?
Tony Leung: I've had some from the U.S. and some from Europe. But the characters on offer are very restrictive and I don't see why they have to be. Everyone wanted me to play 'the gangster.' That's why I prefer to work in Asia. You get more space to act, more roles. If I want to be like [actor Chow] Yun-fat, then I need to stay in the U.S., understand American culture, and polish up my English. It would be very good experience, but I haven't thought about moving there or making any movies there.

TIME: Were you surprised to win the award?
Leung: Yes, I thought Wong Kar-wai or Maggie Cheung were more likely [to win something]. I was ready to go back to the hotel and hang out, but then I won. So I had to do all these interviews, and I started to tremble. I was doing straight interviews for one-and-a-half months after that.

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TIME: So why did you win?
Leung: I think it was because there was no great competition.

TIME: That's terribly modest.
Leung: I was terribly lucky this year. And that's all it is, luck.

TIME: Last time we spoke you mentioned that you wanted to direct a love story, almost a fairy tale. How do you feel about that now?
Leung: I read a Chinese book that interested me. It was sort of a detective story, ghost story and love story all rolled in one. But then one day I was home and had nothing to do so I watched the Pedro Almodovar film All About My Mother. I thought everything in that movie was so complicated, especially the characters, but I thought that was the level I needed for my movie. So watching that movie changed my mind, but then I change my mind a lot. I also don't want to be a director anymore. There's too much pressure. It's too tough. I want to be a producer instead.

TIME: Your character in In the Mood for Love is pretty complicated to say the least. What's that character all about and how did you keep it consistent?
Leung: There was no point doing any preparation. Wong Kar-wai just gave me a script and I acted as best I could because he wouldn't tell me what he wanted. You need to make yourself very flexible with Kar-wai. You have to turn yourself inside out. I've worked with people on his movies and they are very frightened, very nervous at first, and they come up and ask me what the heck is going on. And I always tell them with Kar-wai, you don't ask, you just feel. I think Kar- wai feels that if you know a character, you're no longer acting, and therefore it restricts your acting. He works in reverse to everyone else. That's why he takes so long and that's why we don't need to know. The actors develop purely through shooting.

TIME: Would you and Maggie ever sit down with Kar-wai and thrash things out? Is there a point where you get very angry with him and say 'either tell me or I'm out of here?'
Leung: No, we will chat, but not about the movie. I think that's really strange, don't you? All the other directors I work with tell you what they want. I never ask. At the beginning of this movie I was meant to be a nice, considerate guy. Then after a few months Kar-wai asked me to do some other things. He started talking about revenge, and told me I would be a 'bad guy.' My character seems complicated. I agree with that.

TIME: The movie is very light on dialogue toward the end, and just drifts. I wanted more of you and Maggie.
Leung: Me too. Both of us wanted more. But unfortunately Kar wai wouldn't allow it. Maybe that's why making the movie was so exhausting, and frustrating. I kept telling Kar-wai that my battery was running out. I kept on stressing because there was no scene for me to express myself.

TIME: How would you rate In the Mood for Love? What's in this movie that isn't in his others?
Leung: It was really hard to develop a good story. The two main characters were both so withdrawn. We encountered lots of problems and it was hard work. But it stimulated Kar-wai. It's all very subtle. There's a lot in this movie that people might not notice.

TIME: Almost too subtle. I compare it with Chungking Express, but in that movie your character and Faye's character got developed better. As a viewer you live with them. In this movie, I couldn't live with both of you. I wasn't allowed inside the film.
Leung: I agree entirely. When I saw the completed film for the first time, even I felt like an outsider. I couldn't get into the characters, live with them both, flow with them. At one point I told Kar-wai we couldn't develop the story if the characters were so withdrawn through the entire movie. I told him I couldn't move, or breathe. You know, originally the film, when it was called Beijing Summer, was going to be a light comedy. When that changed, or we couldn't shoot on Tiananmen Square, Kar-wai dreamt up In the Mood for Love. At first, that story was also going to be a comedy, something very different from today's finished product. But then after the first day's shooting, Kar-wai abandoned that idea, too.

TIME: Did you enjoy Ang Lee's film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
Leung: It wasn't bad, but I didn't like the fighting scenes. It was too much like Superman, and there was too much flying. The bamboo scene was ridiculous. I wanted more drama.

TIME: What do you think of Zhang Ziyi?
Leung: She is the most shining Chinese actress at the moment. I'd like to work with her. I'm still working on my script, but she's definitely on my list. I think she's interested in being in my movie, but I can't tell you too much at this stage.

TIME: Will you always live in Hong Kong?
Leung: Yes. I love this place so much and I'll never leave. No matter what happens to Hong Kong, I'll be here.

TIME: Do you get hounded by fans?
Leung: Always. And putting a pair of sunglasses on doesn't work. It's tiring going out; people always come up and ask for autographs. There's no privacy in Hong Kong. That's why I'd like to have a second home, perhaps in Paris.

TIME: Why Paris?
Leung: It is very laid back. You can wear worn jeans and nobody cares. Try to wear worn jeans in Hong Kong and some places won't let you in. It's like that in New York. Paris is also very literary and romantic. In Hong Kong, the pace is very fast. I look out from my flat in Mid-Levels and all I see is people buying and selling, people walking fast like ants, and more buying and selling.

TIME Do you shop for your own clothes?

Leung: I hate shopping. I wear the same jeans, same undershirt... I don't try too hard with fashion.

TIME: And how do you relax?
Leung: If I'm not working, I'll go on my boat and have a few drinks. Most of my friends are outside the movie business. It's too much to mix with other celebrities. When I go out I prefer no one talk about movies. I'd rather talk about waterskiing, the sea, beaches, seafood...

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