Iconic Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai became the first Chinese actor to win a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award at the 80th Venice Film Festival on 2 September 2023.
Without any doubt, Tony Leung is the most celebrated Asian actor of his generation, having won multiple Hong Kong Film Awards and Taipei Golden Horse Awards, as well as international recognition with his Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for In The Mood for Love by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai in 2000.
Tony Leung, “In the Mood for Love”, Wong Kar-Wai, 2000
Born in Hong Kong in 1962, Leung was marked by his childhood in a broken home, between a gambling father and a mother struggling to raise him and his sister alone. At this time, broken families were rare and Leung became solitary and secluded. Used to hide his emotions, Leung later explained that his childhood experiences paved the way for his acting career. Going to cinema and watching movies with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino or Alain Delon was a way to escape reality, and acting would allow him to “vent all of (his) suppressed emotions”.
Young Tony Leung
It’s thanks to his friend Stephen Chow, future actor and comedian, that Leung decided to become an actor when he was 20 years old, after doing multiple jobs to help his family. He enrolled in an acting course at Hong Kong’s leading television studio TVB, learning how to use his emotions into his characters.
Between 1982 and 1983, he hosted the children’s programme 430 Space Shuttle. For eight years in the 80s, he played leading roles in multiple TV series, including The Duke of Mount Deer and Police Cadet in 1984. His transition from television to film started in the late 80s, and his career entered a new chapter when he began working with Hong Kong movie director Wong Kar-wai in 1994.
Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung, “Happy Together”, Wong Kar-wai, 1997
During their long and successful collaboration, the heteroclite pair of actor and director have made seven films together, including Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000), and The Grandmaster (2013). Wong Kar-wai even organised the wedding of Tony Leung with Hong Kong actress Carina Lau in Bhutan in 2008.
Leung also appeared in A City of Sadness by Hsiao-Hsien Hou (1989), the cult classic Hard Boiled by John Woo (1992), Cyclo by Tran Anh Hung (1995), Hero by Zhang Yimou (2002), box office hit Infernal Affairs by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak (2002), Lust, Caution by Ang Lee (2007) and Red Cliff by John Woo (2008).
Tony Leung, “Cyclo”, Tran Anh Hung, 1994
In 2021, Leung made his debut to Hollywood in his first English-speaking movie, the Marvel Cinematic Universe film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, by Japanese-American Destin Daniel Cretton.
Despite working with Wong Kar-wai on instinct, with no script and with only a little hint about his characters, Tony Leung has been known for being a method actor, doing a lot of upstream preparation. For his first European movie with Hungarian director Idilko Enyed to be filmed in 2024, he plans to spend eight months preparing for his role as a neuroscientist.
Tony Leung receiving the 80th Venice Film Award, 2023
When receiving his award at the 80th Venice Film Festival from the hands of Ang Lee who directed him in 2007, Leung gave an emotional acceptance speech, paying tribute to Hong Kong, its movie industry and people.
“I am so grateful to have been raised in Hong Kong, as well as being nurtured later by the Hong Kong movie industry in general, where my acting career began. I also want to share this honour and give thanks to all those wonderful people who I have worked with over the past 41 years, because this is a tribute to them as well – and of course, to Hong Kong cinema.”