Being a lifelong Hong Kong cinema fan, the man, the legend Tony Leung has meant a lot to me from a young age. The first time I saw his rawly emotive, smolderingly charismatic style was in John Woo’s Bullet in the Head, I knew then that this guy was someone to follow. He’s the kind of actor who makes any film worth watching. Now that the western cinematic world has been introduced to him through Marvel’s deliriously entertaining Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, I’d like to recommend my personal favourites from his vast filmography.
The aforementioned Bullet in the Head provided Leung with a part that encompasses the romance of youth, the horrors of war, and the value of friendship and brotherhood. There is bloodshed and violence, and this being a John Woo film it is exquisitely shot, but with a harder, more nihilistic and bleak edge than his usual surreal romanticism. Leung steals the movie among other strong actors such as Jackie Cheung and Simon Yam, and later scenes have a heart-rending feel. Arguably the best pure action film ever made, Woo’s Hard Boiled, features Leung at his very best, playing off another Hong Kong cinema legend Chow Yun Fat. The most recent Woo/Leung collaboration is 2008’s Red Cliff, the Chinese historical epic to end all epics. As one of Chinese history’s greatest figures Zhou Yu, Leung puts in a magisterial performance.
Leung is most well known in his Hong Kong cinema output for the films he made with arthouse darling Wong Kar Wai. His heartbroken cop in Chungking Express has just the right balance of humour and sadness, and as one part of a gay couple alongside another legend of Hong Kong cinema, the late Leslie Cheung, in Happy Together he puts in a dramatic powerhouse performance. Ashes of Time reinvents the swordplay genre. It’s a ravishing epic that took 5 years to make and features most of the best Hong Kong actors of the time. Leung’s brooding swordsman makes a huge impact. The one that everyone talks about, and rightly so (BFI voted it the best film since 2000), In the Mood For Love is for me the most beautiful film ever made. It’s the perfect balance of style and substance. Leung’s melancholy performance haunts you, and alongside Maggie Cheung they create one of the great screen romances.
Leung, despite not being a trained martial artist, has appeared in numerous swordplay films; this is mainly due to the popularity of the genre with Asian audiences. Films such as Butterfly and Sword and The Magic Crane are eye-popping popcorn fare that are wildly entertaining, and showcase the more playful side of Leung’s persona. This type of Hong Kong cinema takes a bit of getting used to for the western eye, with jarring tonal shifts and strange humour, epitomised by another Leung starrer The Eagle Shooting Heroes.
No article about Tony Leung is complete without a mention of Infernal Affairs, one of the tightest, most complex thrillers post-2000. No wonder Martin Scorsese remade it for The Departed. Tony Leung’s ability to communicate a range of emotions, even in the one shot, is testament to his incredible range as an actor, and I’m so glad that he can do it just as well in an English language feature. There’s no doubt he steals Shang-Chi. Other movies such as The Lunatics, People’s Hero and My Heart is that Eternal Rose are early examples of his genius, and all of the films mentioned are well worth seeking out.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in cinemas now