Actor Tony Leung is back after three-year break from cinema

Hong Kong star Tony Leung pretended he was under no pressure speaking Mandarin in rom-com See You Tomorrow

Takeshi Kaneshiro (left) and Tony Leung Chiu Wai play bar owners in See You Tomorrow.
Takeshi Kaneshiro (left) and Tony Leung Chiu Wai play bar owners in See You Tomorrow. PHOTOS: SHAW ORGANISATION

Only an actor's actor could pull off the double performance that Tony Leung Chiu Wai gave on the set of his new romantic comedy, See You Tomorrow, in Shanghai.

In the starring role of Chen Mo, a bar owner and so-called ferryman who steers jilted, heartbroken individuals to inner peace, the Hong Kong actor often learnt long passages of dialogue on the spot in Mandarin, which is not his mother tongue.

Not only that, the Cannes Best Actor winner also pretended that "it was like nothing" and that he was under no pressure.

In fact, "on the set, my pressure is, I'm Leung Chiu Wai, I can't NG" (or do a take that is "no good"), the 54-year-old said.

For the record, he did not stumble over any lines and his scenes did not need retakes. Moreover, he never seemed to be just reciting his lines, a feat that would pose a challenge even to a native Mandarin speaker, his Taiwanese-Japanese co-star Takeshi Kaneshiro said.

But Leung confessed: "Many times, I finished and asked my scene partner, 'Did you notice just now that one of my eyes was blank? Actually, I was thinking, what's my line?'"

Then again, he probably expresses a wider range of emotions with one eye than some actors do with their whole bodies.

He has perhaps the most famous eyes in Chinese-language cinema. In Hong Kong newspapers, few reports on him - or photos of him shared on social media by his actress wife Carina Lau - have failed to mention his "electrifying eyes". The New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis has called him a "poet of hurt" who "suggests worlds of pain with his melancholic eyes".

In an interview on Thursday, those eyes were limpid and earnest as he explained to a few reporters why he chose a comedy as his first major movie in three years.

"I had been making dramas for some time and suddenly I wanted to change, I wanted to have new feelings," he said ahead of the premiere of the film at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Produced by Wong Kar Wai and directed by Zhang Jiajia, See You Tomorrow is a flashy, wacky and sometimes emo romp through neon-lit Shanghai starring Leung, Kaneshiro, Eason Chan and Angelababy. Leung and Kaneshiro play buddies who work, play, love and live in a bar district in the film, which reunites them in their first romantic comedy together since director Wong's 1994 cult movie Chungking Express.

See You Tomorrow is based on Ferryman, a tale from I Belonged To You, a wildly popular collection of so-called bedtime stories for adults by Chinese novelist Zhang, who is now making his directorial debut.

The movie is also Leung's first with Wong after The Grandmaster, the 2013 action drama that took an arduous three years - 2009 to 2012 - to film in China.

He took a long break before he returned to Wong's set last year. He also has a minor role in the Bhutanese movie Hema Hema: Sing Me A Song While I Wait, which played on the film festival circuit this year.

He said: "After shooting The Grandmaster, I told Wong Kar Wai, 'For the next movie, I hope to make a comedy, to see things from a different perspective.'"

The two have been frequent collaborators since Days Of Being Wild (1990), the 1960s-era film that ended with an enigmatic sequence of Leung getting ready to go out.

After the conversation, Wong got back to him with Ferryman, the story of Xiaoyu, a woman who is in love with Ma Li, a cuckolded artist, but has no designs on him. She does not want to be his "spare tyre", she says. She just wants to be his "ferryman", the person who gets him through a difficult patch.

Leung said: "I read the short story, found it quite interesting and decided to do this."

"This" turned out to be See You Tomorrow, which not just follows Xiaoyu (Angelababy) and Ma (Chan), who is now a singer with an unfaithful fiancee, but also expands into other love stories involving her bar-owning neighbours Chen (Leung) and Guan Chun (Kaneshiro).

Notably, Guan is a goofy, lovesick Tai-ke - Taiwan's answer to Singapore's Ah Beng - who gives the film a chance to riff on Taiwanese subculture. When he is not mooning over an amnesiac baker (Sandrine Pinna), he is singing Hokkien songs and playing Japanese arcade games.

At a press conference at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong on Thursday, Kaneshiro, 43, said he jumped at the chance to work with Wong again as Chungking Express was an important film in his career.

But on the set of See You Tomorrow, he was nervous and had reservations about playing a character too similar to the goofballs he had played in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels (1995).

So he told Wong, who was practically co-directing the new film: "I seem to be repeating the same things. I don't want to repeat."

Ultimately, following discussions with the directors, he pushed his character in an over-the-top tragicomic direction and Guan's story, like others in the movie, mixes laughs and tears freely.

Indeed, with all its brooding voiceovers and frequent detours to heartbreak, the film plays rather like a Wong Kar Wai movie, but with heaps of gags.

Leung, who thought he had signed up for a regular romantic comedy, said: "All the actors didn't think they would have to cry so much, shed so many tears for a comedy."

His next projects are two action comedies, Europe Raiders and Monster Hunt 2. Hopefully they will really be more light-hearted.

• See You Tomorrow is showing in cinemas.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2016, with the headline Actor Tony Leung is back after three-year break from cinema. Subscribe