Man at His Best

Comedic Tony Leung Is Just As Good As Sad Tony Leung

The brooding thespian ferries us through his latest role in See You Tomorrow.

BY Jack Forest | Jan 27, 2017 | Film & TV

Photographs by Wing Shya. Styling by Angus Lui. Translated by Charles Wong.


We encounter many hardships in life. We are mesmerised by this melancholy and yet it troubles us to think that it might all have been a façade to begin with. Many ships have set sail after the storms subside and the current is calm, just like the fading memories of yesterday. Tony Leung has sailed through storms and arrived in the realm where the flowers bloom—a Nirvana. With a smile, he ferries us across the waters.



In Chinese author Zhang Jiajia’s novel I Belonged to You, there is a chapter called “The Ferryman”. It was adapted into a film, which was directed by the author himself and produced by auteur Wong Kar-Wai (the studio has since changed the English film title to See You Tomorrow). Tony Leung was cast as one of the leads. The press kit states that it is a comedy, and this reminds me of another Tony Leung comedy that I really liked—The Eagle Shooting Heroes. Leung smiles after hearing this.

“I am accustomed to following my instincts. I know that I no longer want to work in dramatic films,” he states. “There’s enough gloom in the real world and I do not wish to make people view this world from such a perspective.” Using film as a way to ease into our conversation, Tony Leung leads me into his world.

See You Tomorrow contains many different comic elements and the presentation is beyond what I initially expected,” he continues. “Do not equate comedy with farce. The essence of the story does include weighty themes. There’s always sadness that accompanies laughter. When it hits you, the pain can be quite intense.” Light seems to emanate from Tony Leung’s eyes. I can’t tell if it is serenity or wisdom.

“The theme can be serious, but we can always choose the kind of attitude and the angle—this is something that’s worth learning,” he observes. “The decision to make comedies has to do with my hope that everyone learns to face difficulties with optimism.” He goes on to explain what he means: “We live in a society that is filled with hostility and discouragement. I believe everyone needs more positive energy in order to feel that there is still hope in the future. I remember watching Our Journey [a ’70s Japanese television series] when I was young, and its message resonated with me. Every day is a new beginning and the unhappiness of yesterday will pass. There is no need to be reminded of it all the time.

“As a professional in the movie industry, I wish to share this feeling with the audience. Just like Doraemon’s dokodemo door [a Japanese cartoon character whose door leads to anywhere one desires], I hope the audience can enter the cinema and live in a dream for the next 120 minutes. And when they leave, they will be energised to face life with courage and good faith.”



We start from the beginning

It is at this precise moment that I raise my hand slightly, signalling a time out. Leung looks at me in anticipation of the next question that I’m expected to ask, because what he’s just said isn’t for my ears only, nor is it a message intended for a larger audience.

After hearing my question, he instantly sinks into deep thought, and offers an answer only after the sand has settled on the seabed. “You know me too well,” he finally says. “I hope to achieve these things for myself too. I know that I have to learn to comprehend and embrace the right attitude, before sending out my message.”

I have to ask such questions because Tony Leung comes across as a melancholy character to many of us. He is always serious and solemn. It is this impression that’s firmly etched in our minds. But incredibly, on the afternoon that we meet, right in front of me is an upbeat and easy-going person. Many people have shared their life story with me so I am certain that his carefreeness is genuine.

There is a difference between imagination and reality. I am curious if this sudden shift of perspectives has actually arisen from a sudden need to change. “I feel that I’ve been an unhappy person for most of my life,” admits Leung. “However, I really want to make myself happy. That’s why I have been trying to change, and so it isn’t a sudden change of heart. No one can become instantly happy like in a fairy tale. This endeavour does not have an end point. It is a perpetual process.” Tony Leung edges closer to me before saying firmly: “By doing your best to move in your desired direction, you are holding on to the hope that you can continually strive for improvement in your life.”

As I ponder these words, my impression of Tony Leung gradually becomes more concrete and real.



Everyone speaks the same words

“True happiness has nothing to do with wealth, fame or the attention that you receive,” observes Leung. “I can tell you that all of the above is worthless. I’m speaking as someone who has gone through it all. True happiness is when one has no worries. When there’s trouble in your heart, no matter where you are—even if it is a luxurious hotel suite, like the one that we’re in right now—or no matter how nice the clothes that you might wear are or how delicious the food is that you’re savouring, if you have worries, happiness is something that is unattainable. If you’d like to free yourself of worry, you have to devote your entire life to reaching that goal. And perhaps, in my case, it is all about spiritual awareness.”

Tony Leung’s words might come across as cliché. In fact, that’s how he sees them. Perhaps the truth has always been a simple one. So simple that, as much as you understand it, only a few can actually grasp it. This is exactly what makes it so depressing. Of course, everybody’s prone to worry, which is beyond one’s control most of the time. Tony Leung is a case in point.

“My father left us when we were very young [Leung has a younger sister],” he reveals. “Because my mum had to work, the responsibility of taking care of the rest of the family fell on my shoulders. I had little choice but to become a man as quickly as possible.”

It takes little imagination to picture the hardships that Tony Leung had to endure while growing up. He managed to traverse this difficult road with determination. However, he knows that it would have been impossible if he had walked it alone.

“There are many different stops in our lives—school, work, etc. Everyone is confronted by disappointment at some point. If someone had not offered words of encouragement or lent a helping hand, I might not have been able to continue my journey,” he says. “A ferryman is someone who carries others—a helmsman. In my life, I have met many such ‘ferrymen’. Those who have offered encouragement and positive energy in my life are my ‘ferrymen’. Sometimes, their simple words of encouragement were so important to me that I committed them to memory where they will remain for the rest of my life.”



Taking a lifetime to grow

Leung continues: “Because of these experiences, I wish to be someone’s ferryman. The difference is I am afraid of making a great show of preaching my beliefs. I’d rather demonstrate to others what I believe in, and that’s why I place those beliefs in my films. Only some might get the message, but that’s good enough for me.”

We talk about work and living, as opposed to leisure and life. We also talk about him having a blast cycling, just like a kid, while filming in Europe. It’s simply too stressful in Hong Kong. In order to avoid inconveniencing others by venturing out in public, Leung chooses to spend most of his free time at home.

The mischievous inner child is only released while working overseas. From these little clues, I can see joy and tranquillity—a side of Tony Leung that I never expected to be privy to in the first place.

“I’ve learned to love myself at last,” says the actor in his trademark unhurried drawl. “I learned this from my wife [actress Carina Lau] and Buddhist texts. Psychology is also related to philosophy. You’ll learn the right way to treat others and to face yourself. Once you see the world for what it is, that’s when you will become increasingly happy and joyful.”

I smile as a different side of Tony Leung ferries me along.


Style assisted by Paddy. Hair by George Wong from Headquarters Salon. Make-up by Candy Law. Shot on location at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong. All outfit by Fendi.

First published in Esquire Singapore's January 2017 issue.