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A cinematic elegy on love, made possible by a moustache
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Tony Leung as Mr. Chow in "2046." Leung played the same man in "In the Mood for Love," but told director Won Kar Wai he needed a moustache to take the role forward. (Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
A moustache can be a very important thing. Just ask Hong Kong film actor Tony Leung. He's known to U.S. action movie fans for his parts in "Hero," "Infernal Affairs," and "Hard Boiled." For the arthouse crowd, he's known for "Chunking Express" and "In the Mood for Love." His latest film, "2046," opens in the Twin Cities this weekend. He says he couldn't have done it without some facial hair.

St. Paul, Minn. — For the last decade Tony Leung has been the leading collaborator with director Wong Kar Wai, whose films have drawn critical acclaim around the world. Wong's visually sumptuous movies are all the more remarkable because he reveals only a little of the plot each day to his actors. Leung says it gives him great freedom as an actor.

"You have no specific direction at the very beginning, you don't have a script," Leung says. "You don't know the story. There are little hints, so there's no right or wrong in creating your character. You can do whatever you want. And it's like an adventurous journey."

The journey Wong wanted to take with Tony Leung in "2046" actually began in his film, "In the Mood for Love." In that film, Leung played Mr Chow. He's a writer, living in Hong Kong in 1962, who learns his wife is having an affair. Chow befriends, and eventually falls in love with, the other man's wife. His love is not returned.

"2046" picks up the story a few years later, with Mr. Chow alone, drifting among women, none of them able to make him forget his lost love.

"It's very sad. It's very sad," says Leung. "At the very beginning I think this is a story about a man (trying to) carry on his life after he broke up with the woman he loves. And he tries to change. He tries to forget the past. He tries to live like a new man. He thinks he's changed entirely, he sees things, he acts differently, but deep down inside him I think he still lingers with the past and that's sad."

"2046" takes its name from Mr Chow's room number in his residential hotel. It's also the title of a science fiction story Chow writes. The story is about a train that leave for the year 2046, taking people to a place where they can reclaim lost memories. Despite his best efforts, Chow is unable to escape the past.

Mr. Chow is a hardened tragic figure, who dresses in smart suits, with brilliantined hair. He seldom smiles.

Tony Leung looks nothing like Mr. Chow. He dresses casually, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. He never stops grinning. He says at first, Wong Kar Wai told him to just play the same Mr. Chow as in the first film. But Leung says he needed a new challenge.

"And I said, 'I need something to get hold of to make myself believe that I am a new person. Can I have a moustache?' And he said 'No!'" Leung laughs.

The actor persisted though, and eventually won out. He says he rebuilt his character from the moustache out. Of course, it was a little more complicated than just growing some facial hair. Actually, it was much more complicated.

"2046" took five years to complete. There was the time needed to create the lush sets and costumes, and to work through the improvised script.

Leung had to leave to make three other movies during the time. The production was then delayed by the SARS epidemic. Its much anticipated premiere at the Cannes film festival in 2004 was marred by complaints it felt unfinished.

Now, re-edited, it's being released in the U.S. The New York Times calls it an unqualified triumph.

Leung seems pleased with the film, and he's already looking forward to his next collaboration with Wong Kar Wai.

"We will do a Kung Fu movie next year based on the true story of the teacher of Bruce Lee," he says." So it will be a very different one from what have done in the last 10 years."

But will this one take five years to shoot too?

"If that takes five years I will die before the shooting is finished," Leung laughs.

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