Even after thirty years in the Hong Kong movie industry, there are still some roles that have eluded Tony Leung Kar-Fai, often regarded as ‘not the Tony Leung who stars in Wong Kar Wai movies’. In ‘Tai Chi Zero’, the veteran actor gets to play a gongfu master – or to be more precise, a ‘tai chi master’ – and Tony says that he is extremely glad for the opportunity to be seen in a different light.

“After two months of training, I am proud to say that I have progressed from a Level Zero to a Level One,” Tony quipped, addressing an appreciative crowd gathered for the press meet at the Fullerton Hotel to promote the movie. “On the other hand,” he adds, gesturing to his co-star Yuan Xiaochao, “Xiaochao has gone from a Level Zero to a Level Ten during that same time!”

A 2010 Asian Games gold medallist for wushu, Xiaochao makes his acting debut opposite Tony Leung and other notable Asian stars like Angelababy and Eddie Peng in a big-budget alternate take on the traditional martial arts genre directed by Stephen Fung. Xiaochao plays the lead Yang Luchan, who under the tutelage of Tony’s Master Chen, picks up the gongfu style that specialises in using one’s inner energy to defeat one’s opponent.

That master-disciple relationship is as evident offscreen as it is onscreen, with the media veteran Tony often guiding or shielding the press-shy Xiaochao from the media glare. Clearly not used to the attention that he has been getting headlining such a major release, Xiaochao often answers questions directed at him haltingly and hesitantly – but Tony is always quick to jump in with a PR-savvy answer.

Case in point – when asked what he looks for in a girlfriend and whether Angelababy might be someone who fits the bill, Xiaochao clams up almost immediately, leaving Tony to deflect the question with a polite answer how it is all just part of Xiaochao’s character. When Xiaochao manages to answer eloquently, you can tell he’s been prepped for those questions beforehand.

So ask him if he sees himself as the next Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee and he says quite immediately, “I am honoured for the comparison, but right now I have just started out in the business so I am just going to focus on doing my best.” Ditto when you ask him what his hopes for the movie are – “Tony and I practised for about two months prior to shooting, and I just hope that audiences will be able to see the fruit of our efforts.”

When you point out to Tony how his on and off screen relationship with Xiaochao seem to mirror each other, the veteran says philosophically that it is borne out of a sense of responsibility he feels towards newcomers like Xiaochao. “Having been in the industry for so many years, I think there’s something I can impart to the newbies about treating others on the set with respect and encouragement,” he adds. “Besides, by doing so, I hope to be able to encourage everyone on the set to do likewise!”

In fact, while he might be playing a literal master for the first time in ‘Tai Chi Zero’, Tony has always been conscious of playing a figurative master given his stature and experience in the industry. It was the opportunity of supporting such a groundbreaking project as ‘Tai Chi Zero’ that convinced him to take up the role in the first place.

“When I met up with Stephen, I was immediately taken by what he had in mind for this film,” he says, “And when I first saw the film in Venice where it premiered, I just sat there watching with my mouth agape at what he had managed to accomplish.” Effusive of his praise for the movie as well as for Stephen, he adds that this movie had the potential of placing Chinese cinema on the world stage.

“Thirty years ago, Bruce Lee brought recognition to Chinese cinema with his movies. I believe that ‘Tai Chi Zero’ will not only be able to enjoy that same appeal among international audiences, it will also help to promote a greater understanding of Chinese culture, which the art of ‘taichi’ is an invaluable part of,” he says. “I’m really honoured to be part of such an enterprising endeavour.”

Certainly, after so many years in the industry, Tony has more than honed his skills at promoting a movie – but behind the PR-talk, you can truly sense a man who has accepted his place as a veteran and is always ready to help out not just the industry as a whole but newcomers to the industry. Yes, instead of drawing attention to himself, he places it squarely on Xiaochao as well as up and coming director Stephen Fung.

In addition to ‘Tai Chi Zero’, Tony will also soon be seen in the Hong Kong crime thriller ‘Cold War’ where he plays a police detective next to Aaron Kwok. Like ‘Tai Chi Zero’, ‘Cold War’ is also directed by two relative newcomers – Sunny Luk and Longman Leung – both of whom would unlikely be able to take the helm of such a major release were it not for the backing of veterans like Tony.

Rare is the master that is not just humble, but is always willing to support the aspiring around him. And while Tony might not play a gongfu master again anytime soon, it seems he has found his calling as a master - just in a different sense of the word. 

TAI CHI ZERO opens in theaters 4 October 2012 and is reviewed here

Our Interview with Director Stephen Fung