23 September 2007

Tony Leung Trio

I was going to recommend the films of Wong Kar-Wai when I had a revelation. I've seen roughly 8 Chinese-language films in my lifetime, and actor Tony Leung (a.k.a. Leung Chiu Wai, if you're of the Asian persuasion) has been in, oh, 7 of them. Whether he's the Kevin Bacon of China or simply an actor whose movies happen to get US distribution, I do not know. What I do know is his presence anchors every film I've seen him in.

The first film I saw Tony Leung in is John Woo's Hard Boiled. Leung plays a cop undercover in a gun dealer's gang who crosses paths with Chow Yun-Fat's hardened (as in a boiled egg) detective on the trail of the very same gun dealer. While that description may sound like an intriguing setup for a gritty drama, keep in mind that this is a John Woo film, which means lots of people shoot lots of guns at lots of other people as they jump and swing and do lots of insane shit, sometimes in slow motion. The opening teahouse shootout sets the kick-ass tone for the rest of the film. Woo has many nameless henchmen kill many nameless civilians, which doesn't really bother Chow Yun-Fat's character so much as when his partner is killed. Angry Chow chases his partner's killer into a backroom, gets covered in flour while dodging bullets, and then blows off the guy's head, thus splattering his flour-white face with blood. Yes, that is the first five minutes. Leung lends some gravity to the proceedings as the morally compromised undercover cop, but it's Woo's bullet-ridden choreography that will forever forgive him his future trespasses, which are called Windtalkers and Paycheck.

In Infernal Affairs, Leung plays another cop undercover as a gangster who is hunted by another cop, who happens to be an undercover gangster. This is the gritty drama take on that premise, and the film is both a clever thriller and an intriguing character study. There is an extended sequence early in the film when the police are waiting for a drug deal to go down and the film details how Leung and his counterpart (played by Andy Lau) are indirectly sabotaging the other's operation. It's a clever, taut, even provocative film that manages to stay focused on the two leads as they slowly but surely lose their grip on their identities. Lau is solid, but Leung stands out as a man who hates himself for what he is only pretending to be, and slowly drowns in desperation because the number of people who know the truth are dwindling. If this all sounds strangely familiar to you, this was the basis for The Departed, so if you want to lord your superior film knowledge above the heads of your Netflix friends, do give it a spin and pretend like it was a secret that the Hollywood Remake Machine let out.

In Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, Leung gets to stretch his legs and play... a cop. Which is why I will instead be talking about Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. In it, Leung plays a writer (ha!) who rents a room next door to a lady played by Maggie Cheung. Both are married, and both come to the realization that their spouses are cheating on them with each other. What unfolds is an endearing friendship that threatens to turn into something more, but both vow never to sink to the level of their unfaithful spouses. This is the type of art house fair that I usually dread, but Wong is a romantic through and through. He infuses his films with real heart and, in this case, real melancholy. Loneliness and unrequited love are staples of his work, and what's heartbreaking about Mood is the fact that both emotions are self-inflicted. Both characters repress their true feelings so as not to shame their already broken marriages. Visually, the film is a splendor. Wong is a master at creating atmosphere, and here he recreates a crowded 1960s Hong Kong with rich colors and a penchant for the Nat King Cole song "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas." At first, it is a little odd to hear Cole crooning in Spanish for this Chinese film, but the images are mesmerizing and the repitition of it is sadly evocative... perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Leung won Best Actor at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival for his work here.

So there you go. If you're in the mood for a fun Friday night doubleheader, go with Infernal Affairs followed by Hard Boiled (and stay far, far away from the Infernal Affairs sequels). If you want heartbreak and romance, give In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express (which is delightfully romantic) a spin. If you want a dash of science-fiction mixed in with your unrequited love, pick up a copy of Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, a quasi-sequel to Mood that also stars Zhang Ziyi and follows Leung's character as he becomes a cold womanizer who writes a pulp sci-fi novel that mirrors his hedonistic exploits. Like what you've read about Leung but want some kung fu? There's Hero with Jet Li, a visually stunning and dreadfully boring film, but hey, whatever your cup of tea. Action? Love? Subtitles? Tony Leung is your man.

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