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Not Just The Other Tony Leung

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

When hearing the name Tony Leung, viewers would be forgiven for automatically thinking of Tony Leung Chiu Wai, the internationally acclaimed, sad-eyed Hong Kong star of In the Mood for Love, Hero, Infernal Affairs, and more recently Lust, Caution. However, particularly in recent years, the name is equally likely to be used in reference to another Tony Leung, namely Tony Leung Ka Fai, whose twenty-five year career has seen him grace the screen in nearly a hundred productions. Those confused by the similarity in English names may find it helpful to know that the two are often differentiated by nicknames, with Tony Leung Chiu Wai having been dubbed "Little Tony" and Tony Leung Ka Fai "Big Tony." However, it should be made clear that this refers only to their height, and certainly not their stature as actors, with Leung Ka Fai having appeared in a number of high-profile productions and having garnered an impressive haul of prestigious awards and nominations.

Early Years

Tony Leung Ka Fai was born on February 1, 1958 in Hong Kong, the son of a projectionist of Western films. Perhaps as a result he decided to follow a cinematic career from an early age, and after graduating from college he enrolled in the TVB Acting School training program. Unfortunately, financial pressures forced him to drop out after nine months, though he was still able to remain involved with the entertainment scene by publishing a magazine on the arts with several of his friends.

Through this, he won his first role as the lead in Li Han Hsiang's Burning Of The Imperial Palace, playing Emperor Xian Feng - though it's fair to say that his winning the part may also have had something to do with the fact that the director was the father of his then-girlfriend. Leung next starred in Li Han Hsiang's Reign Behind a Curtain, an early joint Hong Kong-Mainland Chinese production which was well received and won the 26-year-old newcomer the Best Actor award at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

Unfortunately, due to difficulties with relations between China and Taiwan at the time, Leung was blacklisted in Taiwan for appearing in a film shot in China, and soon found himself being boycotted by several distributors. The resulting loss in export-related earnings meant that the actor was largely ignored by the Hong Kong industry for the next few years, though he did manage to pick up work on a few minor productions such as Ghost Informer and Cherie, and did appear in the Ti Lung vehicle People's Hero alongside his erstwhile namesake Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Despite his troubles, Leung also won himself a Hong Kong Film Awards Best Actor nomination for Last Emperor (not to be confused with Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 epic The Last Emperor), Li Han Hsiang's 1986 follow-up to Imperial Palace.

Career on Fire

The actor's next big break finally arrived in 1987 with Prison on Fire, noted action director Ringo Lam's follow-up to his popular City on Fire and controversial School on Fire. The film, which again drew attention for its brutality and social criticism, was headlined by Chow Yun Fat and offered Leung a choice role as a fellow inmate with whom he forms a brotherly bond. A commercial and critical hit, it saw his career take flight, and the actor began appearing in more films and in bigger parts. Unsurprisingly, given the current vogue, many of these were in the thriller genre, including the Old Shanghai-set Gunmen, and Tsui Hark's A Better Tomorrow 3, again with Chow Yun Fat.

Receiving favorable notices for his talent and versatility, Leung quickly became an actor in demand. Like most other popular Hong Kong performers, the boom years of the early 1990s were incredibly busy, and he started the new decade well, winning another Best Actor nomination for the drama Farewell China. This was followed by appearances as actress Joyce Godenzi's husband in the hit comedy She Shoots Straight and as an undercover cop in the Jackie Chan blockbuster Island of Fire, which also featured Sammo Hung and Andy Lau.

The actor built on this success by packing in an impressive eighteen films through 1991 and 1992, working on a variety of genre productions such as the underrated politically themed ghost film Red and Black, the action comedy Inspector Pink Dragon and the early Fruit Chan horror outing Finale in Blood. At the same time, he added a number of more substantial roles to his growing resume, including Au Revoir Mon Amour, Stanley Kwan's international award-winning Center Stage, and King of Chess, for which he received another award nomination, as well as a writing credit. Interestingly, it was for his performance in Jeffrey Lau's wacky comedy caper and tribute to 1960s Cantonese cinema 92 Legendary La Rose Noire, rather than any of these more serious productions, for which Leung next won Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Although perhaps rather bizarre and incomprehensible for non-local viewers, the film was a critical smash on its home turf, picking up multiple award nominations.

In 1992 the actor's career took an interesting turn as he travelled to France to star in acclaimed director Jean-Jacques Annaud's The Lover, based on a novel by Marguerite Duras. The film saw him play the Chinaman, the enigmatic lover of a young British schoolgirl played by actress Jane March. Predictably controversial for its sexual content and themes, the film was nominated for a number of awards, and more importantly helped raise Leung's profile even further, proving that he was one of the few Hong Kong actors with international appeal.

Back to the Grind

Back in Hong Kong, Leung's career continued at breakneck pace, with the actor racking up an amazing twelve films in 1993 and nine in 1994. These saw him dabble in pretty much every genre imaginable, from the Wong Jing-helmed sequel God of Gamblers' Return through to horror in the form of Ghost Lantern, comedy with It's a Wonderful Life and Rose Rose I Love You (a follow-up of sorts to 92 Legendary La Rose Noire), and finally romance with Dream Lover and Lover's Lover. During this period, the actor also found considerable success in martial arts films, with appearances in the New Dragon Inn remake, the kung fu comedy Flying Dagger, and Wong Kar Wai's typically mystifying wuxia epic Ashes of Time.

By the mid 1990s, Leung began to slow down a little, though his hard work finally paid off, seeing him graduate to more serious and substantial roles. In 1997 he won his next Best Actor nomination for his turn in Michael Mak's Taiwanese triad drama Island of Greed, again alongside Andy Lau. He followed this by reteaming with Ringo Lam for the excellent suspense thriller Victim, and with Love Will Tear us Apart, a grim immigration drama that he also produced. The coming of the new millennium brought more interesting roles for the actor as he starred with the legendary Leslie Cheung in his penultimate film, Gordon Chan's Okinawa Rendez-vous, and in Dante Lam's Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone, for which he was again nominated as Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards. The next year, he starred in another multinational production, Gua Sha Treatment, a US-set drama dealing with cultural differences.

Double or Nothing

After this and the success of The Lover, Leung was a natural choice for Double Vision, a Taiwanese-US production directed by Chen Kuo Fu. An ambitious, fast-paced supernatural thriller, the film saw him acting next to Western star David Morse and was a reasonable international success, raising his stock even higher, and notching up yet another Hong Kong Best Actor nomination. This gave Leung's career the push it needed, confirming his place among the upper echelons of Hong Kong stars. First though came a change of pace with the Mandarin-language drama Zhou Yu's Train, in which he played a poet quite understandably in love with the titular character, played by the gorgeous Gong Li.

2003 saw Leung playing a small role in the popular ensemble piece Golden Chicken and appearing in the comedies Spy Dad and Good Times, Bed Times. More interestingly, in the same year he worked with up-and-coming top talent Pang Ho Cheung on Men Suddenly in Black, a satire on love and relationships in modern Hong Kong. Intelligent and erudite, and boasting a particularly sharp script, the film gave Leung a juicy role as the leader of a group of men determined to cheat on their wives. Standing out amongst the big name cast, which included Eric Tsang, Jordan Chan, and Chapman To (with an amusing cameo by Sammo Hung), he won Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his efforts.

The next year was even busier, with Leung taking on several roles in high-profile productions, again spreading himself across a variety of genres, featuring in Sylvia Chang's feminist drama 20 30 40, the thriller Fear of Intimacy, the comedies Papa Loves You and Sex and the Beauties, and popcorn sequel Twins Effect 2. More notably, 2004 also saw him work with Hong Kong action maestro Johnnie To for the first time on his deeply personal judo drama and Akira Kurosawa tribute Throw Down. Also featuring Aaron Kwok and Louis Koo, the rather abstract film saw Leung showing off his skills as a veteran martial arts master. Incredibly, the actor also found time to star in Fruit Chan's Dumplings, part of the eagerly awaited horror anthology piece Three... Extremes, playing husband to Miriam Yeung and lover to Bai Ling in a creepy tale about the search for eternal youth. He capped off the year with Best Supporting Actor nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards for Dumplings and for Gordon Chan's sharp media thriller A1, in which he starred alongside Angelica Lee and Anthony Wong.


In 2005 Leung had arguably his most memorable role to date in Johnnie To's superb triad drama Election, playing Big D, a near-psychotic gang boss who becomes embroiled in a power struggle with a fellow mobster played by Simon Yam. The actor revelled in the role, bringing a real sense of danger and violence to his character, whilst somehow managing to retain a certain humanity, and he was duly rewarded with a number of awards and nominations. The same year also saw the actor's career skyrocket with a supporting role in The Myth, the latest blockbuster Jackie Chan vehicle, and with an appearance in Stanley Kwan's sumptuous Everlasting Regret, for which he again won a number of awards and nominations. Finally, he turned in another Mandarin performance in the patriotic Mainland China war film On the Mountain of Tai Hang, in which he had a brief role.

Now sitting quite comfortably on the A-list, Leung had a quiet year in 2006, before returning in 2007 with appearances in an eclectic variety of films, the least consequential of which was Ronald Cheng's bizarre fantasy comedy It's a Wonderful Life. A far more substantial film for the actor was the Milkyway production Eye in the Sky, which marked the directorial debut of screenwriter Yau Nai Hoi, who had scripted Election, Throw Down, PTU, and others for the company. Produced by Johnnie To and also starring Simon Yam, the film was a critical hit, winning awards and praise across the board.

Following this, Leung landed a role which seemed to have been written specifically for him in director Kenneth Bi's The Drummer, playing a ruthless and violent, though strangely vulnerable gang boss whose son confounds him by taking up spiritual drumming in the Taiwanese mountains. The part allowed him to basically replay Election's Big D with a little more emotion, and the actor was more than up to the task, turning in a genuinely moving performance that won him Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Horse Awards. Finally, the actor courted controversy with Mainland Chinese director Li Yu's Lost in Beijing, a tough drama dealing with love, money, and sex in modern China. Also starring Fan Bingbing, the film ran into trouble with the notorious Chinese censors and was inevitably trimmed for release.

Missing and Beyond

Next up, Leung took on another interesting role, featuring in Tsui Hark's latest comeback feature, Missing, a supernaturally themed romantic mystery in the Pang Brothers vein. The actor was also back on screens recently thanks to Wong Kai War's Ashes of Time Redux, a re-release of his 1994 classic with restored sound and visuals. From here, Leung is set to appear in the international TV series Iron Road alongside such acting greats as Peter O'Toole and Sam Neill. However, now a respected screen veteran and Hong Kong star in his own right, he is unlikely to be fazed by their presence. No doubt this role, and indeed the many others still to come, will continue to show that he is indeed Tony Leung, and certainly not simply "the other Tony."

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Published July 21, 2008

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