Hong Kong Superstars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Rehearse a Passion Play
by Dennis Lim, The Village Voice, January 24 - 30, 2001
Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love immerses itself in the tactile, electrostatic minutiae of a clandestine affair that is being mourned even before it has been consummated, and the movie's aura of lush regret derives in no small part from the uniquely pensive glamour of stars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. Wong's discreet hothouse romance marks the first time these two art-film luminaries (and mega-celebrities in Asia) have appeared in leading roles opposite each other. In the Mood was in fact expressly conceived as a vehicle for the two actors. "It was an unfulfilled wish," says Wong. "I wanted to put them together several years ago, in Days of Being Wild, but never got to. At first, I had wanted all the characters in this film to be played by Maggie and Tony, everyone down to the extras, but the concept was too ambitious. . . . Maybe next time."
Wong's working methods amount to an extravagantly organic trial-and-error process, and resulted this time in the most grueling yet of his notorious marathon shoots, spanning a year and a half, hopping from Hong Kong to Bangkok to Angkor Wat. Cheung, whose last collaboration with the director was 1994's martial-arts head trip Ashes of Time, declares: "It was the most difficult film of my career, not just creatively but emotionally—it was fucking up my personal life. It was supposed to be a small, simple film and the contract was for three months. With Kar-wai, I know, you're supposed to expect delays, so I thought, maybe eight months at most, but it dragged on and on and on." Having endured a similarly open-ended shoot in Argentina while making Happy Together, Leung was at an advantage. "I knew what to expect and what was needed—just don't set any limits, no preparation required," he says. "I do research for other directors but not Kar-wai. I don't even have to ask him very much; I usually have a good idea of what he wants."
"We had four wrap parties. I would go home, start my life again, and a week later I'd get a phone call: 'It all looks great, but we need two scenes, just two key scenes to hold the film together.'"
Cheung says Wong's scriptless meanderings and about-turns were enormously frustrating at first. "You go back the next day and everything's changed. You're doing the same scene again in another dress or on another set, and you're wondering what's going to be cut. My character changed at least three or four times during the shoot. But in the end, it wasn't information or research or hard work that helped me find the character, it was just time—the simple fact of doing it over a period of 15 months."
Both performances are as gorgeously nuanced as they are fully inhabited—every lingering glance and gesture floats narcotically through the air and quietly detonates on impact. Wong literalizes the performative aspect of courtship by having the couple initiate their liaison with a series of play-acted vignettes, in which they assume the roles of their respective spouses (who are having an affair with each other); the actors navigate the echo chamber beautifully, adding layers of denial and pretense, then abruptly stripping them away. As Leung points out, "They only show their feelings in these so-called rehearsals. In real life, they're withdrawn and restrained. It's only safe to release their true emotions when the situation is not real."
Throughout their careers, Cheung and Leung have both balanced the workhorse rate of the commercial Hong Kong cinema (she once tossed off a dozen films in a year—"I needed an outlet for my energy") with a judicious slate of prestige projects. Cheung has worked with Stanley Kwan (Actress) and Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep), Leung with Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flowers of Shanghai) and Tran Anh Hung (Cyclo). Both have also been key members of Wong's repertory over the years—Cheung in Days of Being Wild and As Tears Go By, Leung in Chungking Express and Happy Together—and credit him as their "acting teacher." Perversely, though, for In the Mood, his directions consisted largely of instructing his actors not to act. "It's a very challenging film for actors," Wong explains. "These are the most boring parts they could get—normal people, thirtysomething, married, nothing colorful or heroic. They both went through a period of trying to do something to prove they were acting, but I kept telling them not to, because the whole point was to borrow something of theirs. I didn't invent a character and look for an actor to play it. It wasn't a case of casting the right person for the role. We already had the actors; everything was custom-made for them."
Leung, who was born in 1962, the year the film opens, says the lost world of In the Mood is something he remembers well. "I grew up with many neighbors, very much like you see in the film. The economy wasn't so good and people worked hard; they couldn't afford to live alone. We rented out rooms and I remember a lot of gossiping, a lot of quarreling. It's different in Hong Kong these days—you don't even know who lives next door." Cheung, who is two years younger than her costar, left the colony at age eight for London, where she lived until she was 17. "My strongest memories of the period are of my mother, which actually helped me with this film—the cheongsams, the shoes, the handbags, her visits to the hairdressers, the way she stood and walked and talked."
Cheung now lives in Paris with Assayas, her husband of two years, and says the recalls proved increasingly irksome given the 12-hour commutes to the set. "We had four wrap parties. I would go home, start my life again, and a week later I'd get a phone call: 'It all looks great, but we need two scenes, just two key scenes to hold the film together.' And whenever I looked at the rough cut, I liked so much of what I saw that it wasn't too hard to convince myself that it would be worth it. But if there hadn't been a Cannes deadline, I'm sure we would have gone on shooting for another three months." (Wong, for his part, is strikingly unperturbed by actor complaints: "Sometimes you have to pamper them, but sometimes you frustrate them, if you want a certain effect," he deadpans.)
While making In the Mood, both actors took breaks to shoot other films: Leung worked on an action caper called Tokyo Raiders, Cheung on the San Francisco-set romantic comedy Sausalito. Wong himself paused to shoot three weeks' worth of material for his next feature, 2046, which reunites Leung with his Chungking Express pursuer Faye Wong. Leung spent two days working on 2046, but dryly notes: "I don't think those scenes are going to make it in—that was just the rehearsal."
Cheung and Leung are scheduled to work together again in a forthcoming Hou Hsiao-hsien multi-thread epic about Taipei nightlife, with Cheung playing a club DJ and Leung her ex-lover, a gambler. The shared uncertainties of their In the Mood experience have left them "like old friends now," as Cheung puts it, and for both, watching the movie remains its own form of cognitive dissonance. Leung recalls that the first screening at Cannes (where he won the Best Actor prize) was "very confusing because all I could look for was the missing parts." Cheung concurs: "It was horrifying. It wasn't until the second time that I was able to watch it calmly. It took four viewings before I could enjoy it. My interpretation of the film has nothing to do with the film I'm seeing. I went through a lot of other emotions that are outside the film, and I can't erase them."
Still, as Leung puts it, "It's those left-out scenes that develop the characters and make them more complicated. It doesn't matter that you don't see everything that happens—they've gone through something and it makes a difference." "Like an herbal soup," Cheung adds. "A lot has been filtered out, but the richness remains."