Tony Leung Ka-fai reveals secrets of craft

Zhu Yile
Explore the rich tapestry of film through an exclusive interview with Tony Leung Ka-fai, hailed as the King of Acting.
Zhu Yile

He’s known as the "emperor of a thousand faces," a graduate of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and a four-time winner of the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor.

He’s the youngest ever to win this award and the only actor to have snagged it in every decade from the 1980s to the 2010s. Whether he’s playing an emperor, a mob boss, a cop, an everyman, or even a supporting character, his performances are so convincing that you believe he truly becomes the character. This incredible versatility has earned him a legion of devoted fans.

At the 26th Shanghai International Film Festival, Tony Leung Ka-fai serves as a judge in the main competition category for the Golden Goblet Awards. In this interview, let's dive into the fascinating insights he shared with us.

Tony Leung Ka-fai reveals secrets of craft

A relaxed Tony Leung Ka-fai

This isn't Leung's first time visiting Shanghai.

"Every time I come to Shanghai, I feel like I've adopted a new identity," he said. "I'm originally from Guangdong, but people here see me as a true Shanghainese gentleman. They think I belong here. Maybe it's because of the city I live in. I live in Hong Kong, which is also an international city, and my life experiences growing up in Hong Kong might give me that cosmopolitan vibe.

“I’ve been really fortunate. After I started my career, the first time I came to Shanghai was when the Hong Kong TV series ‘The Bund’ (which aired in the 1980s and starred famous actors Chow Yun-fat and Angie Chiu) was a big hit. This show had a huge impact on audiences across the Chinese mainland. I still remember going to the Bund, imitating Chow Yun-fat by wearing a coat and imagining myself as the lead character."

Back then, the Pudong area he saw from the Bund was nothing like it is today — it was just beginning to develop. With each visit to Shanghai or each time he worked here, he witnessed the city's rapid transformation and economic growth.

He thought to himself: "Wow, what an incredible city. As a Hongkonger, I feel so lucky to see its continuous evolution."

This filled him with pride.

His life has evolved much like the development of Shanghai itself, navigating the peaks and valleys of film history and embodying a symbol of his generation.

It was his role as Emperor Xianfeng in the film "Reign Behind a Curtain" that earned him his first Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Actor at the age of 26.

Additionally, being chosen by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud for the lead in "The Lover" has solidified its place as a timeless classic.

Tony Leung Ka-fai reveals secrets of craft

Tony Leung Ka-fai in the film "The Lover"

However, these achievements merely scratch the surface. His dedication is evident in both the quantity and caliber of films he has contributed to.

Reflecting on his career in an interview, Leung remarked: "I've been involved in a large number of films, almost reaching 200. Each success and setback has left its mark on me, but my true fulfillment comes from the diverse characters I've portrayed over the years, enriching my own life.

"Through these roles, I feel like I've lived '200 lifetimes' in different narratives."

Having received numerous awards, he also offers his perspective on their significance.

He believes that awards from various film festivals play a vital role in advancing the careers of independent filmmakers.

Winning an award, he suggests, is not just about the ceremony itself but also about the audience's recognition. Personally, he maintains a chill yet optimistic outlook, neither fixating on awards nor shying away from the desire for acknowledgment that validates his artistic endeavors.

As widely recognized, Leung stands out in the industry for his deep immersion in roles and his tireless dedication to his craft.

When asked whether he attributes his success to natural talent or hard work, he humbly responds: "I grew up in a movie theater. I was placed there before I was even a month old and remained until I turned eight. So, I'm not sure if it was a subtle influence or what.

"The impact of watching films in the theater likely sparked my interest in pursuing acting. However, to excel as an actor, one must also have a wealth of life experiences. This holds true for all actors, and I consider myself fortunate in that regard."

Tony Leung Ka-fai reveals secrets of craft

Tony Leung Ka-fai on the red carpet at the Golden Goblet Awards ceremony during the 26th Shanghai International Film Festival

As a seasoned player in the film industry, when asked how young actors can broaden their exposure and reach more audiences, Leung offered his perspective.

"Technology has advanced significantly," he said. "Let's set aside traditional filmmaking for a moment. If you truly want to pursue acting, there are numerous alternative platforms available today, such as microfilms and short dramas, providing ample opportunities for actors to thrive.

"So, as an actor, staying true to the essence of 'performance' is crucial. There are various approaches and opportunities out there if you're dedicated.

"For instance, even if you start with a small role in a short film where people might overlook you, aspiring actors should seize every chance to perform. With consistent dedication and strong performances, your efforts will eventually be recognized by audiences."

Reflecting on this topic, Leung also mentioned a revered Chinese actor, You Benchang.

"He gained fame for portraying 'Ji Gong,' a legendary Buddhist monk in China's ancient folklore known for his altruistic deeds," he said.

"Before turning 50, You spent years on stage, honing his craft in supporting roles. His dedication paid off when he starred in Wong Kar-wai's acclaimed TV series 'Blossoms Shanghai,' captivating viewers with his impeccable acting even at the age of 90."

"I remember when he received a 'lifetime achievement award,' his message to young people was inspiring: 'You're fortunate to be entering such an exciting era. I envy you. But I'm also lucky to be part of this era!'

His journey as an actor spanned decades, overcoming life's challenges with perseverance. To excel as an actor, it's essential to prioritize dedication over fame and wealth, continually seeking growth and learning in both professional and personal realms."

"If I'm fortunate enough to still be acting and sharing insights with young actors at 90, I'll echo his sentiments," Leung concluded.

Tony Leung Ka-fai reveals secrets of craft

The famous Chinese actor You Benchang in the TV series 'Blossoms Shanghai'

The theme of this year's film festival is "City of Films," and Leung sees each Shanghai International Film Festival as a gathering place for filmmakers from around the globe.

He finds it heartening to witness this trend and phenomenon, whether it's the theaters, meeting venues, or hotels where they stay. Moreover, he's observed a diverse age range among the festival's attendees this time.

"In the past, it seemed mostly younger generations came to watch films, but this time I've noticed many middle-aged and elderly individuals as well.

"Each day when I go to watch movies, I see them at the ticket counter, inquiring about various film titles, asking, 'Are there still tickets available for this one? What about that one?' It strikes a chord with me. It's clear that the allure of cinema is profound. "

"Does a compelling film necessitate thoughtful consideration of how to appeal to different age demographics?

"If you create a truly exceptional film, even individuals using canes or in wheelchairs will come to see it. From my personal experience, the film 'Love Never Ends,' which I presented last year, sparked extensive discourse within the film industry and among viewers regarding its themes and a re-evaluation of the characters depicted.

"To me, achieving this organically, without solely relying on visuals or other calculated strategies, is quite remarkable."

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