Over the years, the fact that there are two Tony Leungs working in Hong Kong cinema, and that they share close associations with Andy Lau and Wong Kar-wai, has proved confusing. Eventually I've come to think of the more internationally visible and boyishly handsome Tony Leung Chiu-wai, 50, as the Johnny Depp of Asia, while Tony Leung Ka-fai, 54, is the more classical Gene Hackman type.
I believe this movie will get an audience, especially in China because it’s nothing that they have seen before.
“Always people come up to me asking for my autograph and they show me Chiu-wai's photo,” recalls Leung, the senior, good-naturedly. “Chiu-wai has told me that when he goes to Cannes they say, 'Oh Tony, Tony! I like you so much in The Lover!' Somehow it's embarrassing but we are both doing well so it doesn't matter that much.”
Tony Leung Ka-fai speaks of the sense of community in the Hong Kong filmmaking scene and how they all share a sense of humour and get along. “When we grew up we were ruled by the British and we were affected by the British education, so that maybe deep down we have a kind of English humour," he says.
His latest movie, Stephen Fung's would-be blockbuster, Tai Chi 0, definitely brings out that colonial British humour, and it's also a frenetic kung fu movie for the 21st century, influenced by the steampunk science fiction style and Japanese animation.
“I like how they present the characters, like in comic books,” says Leung. “They put things that look like video games inside the frame to attract the young audience while the way of storytelling will make it easier for middle-aged audiences to accept a martial arts story.”
Apart from all the high kinetic action, the film's big innovation is that Fung (also an accomplished actor) has placed captions and comments away from the dialogue, with Andy Lau captioned as the director of Infernal Affairs, for example. It might not sound like much but it's neat when you see it as one of a myriad of things that comes flying at you in full 3D style. (The film will screen in 2D as well.)
“If we stick to doing the same thing then there is nothing new,” says Fung, a fan of visually arresting movies like 300 and of the movies of Quentin Tarantino. “We want to push the boundaries just a little bit. I believe this movie will get an audience, especially in China because it's nothing that they have seen before.”
Leung concedes that the emergence of China has made a huge difference to the region's filmmaking. “Hong Kong movies are stronger now because we have more money, we can make bigger movies and we don't have to rely on other countries since China is such a big market. We can have Hong Kong movies co-operating with China and even Taiwan. We may have grown up in different cultures, but we are all Chinese now.”
The producers were so confident of the film's success that the sequel Tai Chi Hero will release shortly afterwards and a third film is already in the works. The combined budgets of the first two films are more than $30 million and it's interesting to note that Tai Chi 0 releases in Australia and New Zealand a day before Taiwan and a week before Hong Kong. The US release is October 19.
Still, I'm a little confused. Isn't tai chi meant to be gentle? Apparently the form commonly practised in Australia is the meditative Taoist style but there are other forms of tai chi—tai chi literally translates as 'supreme ultimate fist'. From the beginning, Fung, producer Chen Kuo-fu and action director Sammo Hung were determined to depict the real tai chi martial arts in their story of two historical figures who represented different schools of martial arts in the 19th century.
“Tai chi is a type of kung fu and this movie is about this chen-style kung fu which later on became tai chi,” Fung explains. “In our film we are talking about the martial arts aspect of it and how Yang Luchan (1799-1872), played by Yuan Xiaochao, improved Chen-style kung fu to turn tai chi into the way it is now with the more gentle moves.”
So why did Leung decide to make his first martial arts movie at age 55? “I want to improve myself,” he replies. “I had been in action-packed movies before but not in a real martial arts movie. This time the company gave me time to learn the real tai chi for two and a half months and I found it to be a traditional but very good martial art. It's not only good for your health but it can make you a real fighter! We spent almost two and a half months in Beijing learning under this very good tai chi master, who is only 21 years old. He has already opened over 80 tai chi schools around the world.”
Leung casts a huge presence in the film even if he's not there at the beginning. How did it feel to wear the flowing robes and be so majestic and powerful?
“I was only acting,” Leung deadpans. “I am a good actor you know! I am not a real master but I am going to be, a real tai chi master. I now try to do it twice a day, once in the morning and once before I go to bed. Before when I woke up in the morning, I would have a coffee and read the newspaper but now I always start with tai chi first.”