Leung’s roles break Western stereotype of Chinese males
Published: Sep 05, 2023 10:34 PM
China-ASEAN: a bright future Graphic: GT

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/Global Times

In the general perception, the director is the true creator and guide of a film. However, there are some actors who can elevate the overall quality of the film with their individual brilliance. 

Undoubtedly, Tony Leung (Leung Chiu-wai) is a member of this elite club. 

Recently, at the awards ceremony of the Venice Film Festival, Leung was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. This award has traditionally been given to directors, and this marks the first time it has been presented to an actor from Asia, breaking new ground. While we can't say that the future of film will necessarily shift from director-driven to performance-driven, it is evident that times are changing.

As people become more inclined and adept at expressing their opinions about films on the internet, a new generation of audiences is emerging. Their expectations for actors are rapidly evolving and, in some cases, becoming quite discerning. They no longer settle for just a charming exterior or exceptional acting skills. Instead, they increasingly expect this profession to carry greater social expectations, and expect that actors would represent their experiences of joy, sorrow, and the complexities of life.

A well-known example is Zhai Tianlin. This young male actor was at the peak of his career a few years ago. On one hand, his acting career was flourishing with achievements and a passionate fanbase, and on the other hand, he had obtained a doctoral degree and was set to enter a postdoctoral research program in cultural studies at one of China's top universities. However, this seemingly perfect career came crashing down due to his academic misconduct during his pursuit of a doctoral degree. His former supporters quickly turned away from him, along with all of his acting opportunities. People couldn't forgive an actor for playing a role in real life that he wasn't meant to.

Leung meets the audience's stringent requirements, and has been a role model professionally.

Leung has always been considered one of the most significant Asian actors in the history of cinema. 

Just as Ang Lee stated before handing him the Golden Lion award, Leung is the actor that all directors dream of, capable of conveying with a single glance what other actors might need a lengthy dialogue to achieve. The journey from an ordinary television actor to an Asian cultural symbol is by no means coincidental.

Leung is renowned in the industry for his dedication and professionalism. He approaches his roles with the same reverence that a monk would have for scriptures. His pursuit has always been about "harmony" rather than mere "completion." 

This Eastern aesthetic sensibility has earned him acclaim across various film genres, including drama, action, romance, and historical films. What is particularly admired by today's younger generation is his performance as a comedian. In the 1993 film The Eagle Shooting Heroes, Leung portrayed a martial arts expert with bad luck, and even 30 years later, close-up shots of his character from that film continue to circulate widely on the internet.

Together with the characters he portrays, he has achieved a remarkable feat: shaping a sophisticated, perceptive, and profound image of the complex Eastern male. 

This image breaks free from the long-standing Western stereotype of Chinese males: either a kung fu expert, a ladies' man, or a schemer. On the international silver screen, a Chinese male has begun to be depicted as an individual with a complex personality rather than a "cartoonish" identity. During the Oscar awards ceremony, when they showcased Chinese-language films, three out of five featured movies had Leung as the lead actor. Leung is one of the rare individuals among Chinese drama actors who possess cross-cultural influence. His impact extends not only to the Asian region but also onto the international stage.

He has also made significant contributions to the film production and cultural fields. He has been involved in various charitable activities related to the film industry and efforts to promote the development of cinematic arts. 

The Lifetime Achievement Award is typically presented to individuals who have achieved long-term excellence in the performing arts. Leung's acting career has spanned several decades, during which he has consistently maintained a high level of performance and professional dedication.

A good actor can make the audience genuinely believe in a character that doesn't exist in reality. 

But at an even higher level, a genius performer will spend their entire life crafting the distinctive qualities of a nationality that sets it apart from others. This is what the Chinese refer to as jìngjiè, which translates to "realm" or "level" and signifies the highest attainable state of mastery in an art or discipline.

The author is a lecturer of Hunan University.