He's among the biggest, most honored stars in the Eastern Hemisphere but Tony Leung is not well known here. That's about to change.
Despite impeccable English that the Hong Kong native demonstrated on a promotional trip to the Twin Cities in 2005, Leung — sometimes billed as Tony Leung Chiu-wai — has not made the shift to Hollywood, other than Ang Lee's China-set "Lust, Caution," which is the place to go if you want to see all of him (the film earns its NC-17 rating for its steamy sex scenes).
Maybe the delay is because he works so often in Hong Kong and China or maybe it's because he has said he has no interest in stereotypical Asian roles. Either way, Leung makes his Western debut in a very big way this September, as a lead in Marvel's "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."
Another possible reason we haven't seen much of Leung on these shores is that he was born half a century too late. Leung, 58, projects glamour and confidence that would have fit alongside Clark Gable and Gary Cooper in the golden era of Hollywood. That may be why he is cast in period films more often than contemporary ones.
Leung's range includes raucous comedies that have not been made available in this country, gangster dramas such as John Woo's "Hard Boiled" (probably Leung's most widely seen movie but it's oddly unavailable to stream). However, his specialty is romance, usually tragic romance. Whether bemoaning his single state to a bar of soap in "Chungking Express," telling the woman who just stabbed him that he doesn't want to live without her in "Hero" or wistfully exploiting a crush in "Cyclo," Leung specializes in boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-spends-the-whole-movie-looking-longingly-at-girl's-photo-until-the-finale-offers-hope-that-she-might-return.
There's intelligence and mystery in Leung's acting, which is to say he doesn't go big very often. Directors love working with him: Wong Kar-wai has hired Leung seven times (the actor claims Wong reveals so little that he doesn't know what the movies are about until he sees them). Leung also has worked multiple times with top directors Hou Hsiao-hsien, Andrew Lau and Woo.
Those collaborations have earned him seven Hong Kong Film best actor trophies, as well as the same prize from the Cannes Film Festival for "In the Mood for Love." To watch Leung's work, you'll need to read subtitles, but these stellar movies, several of which are on the Criterion Channel, are worth the effort.
'The Grandmaster' (2013)
There are a couple of versions of this biopic of Ip Man, the master who taught Bruce Lee everything he knew, and the one that opened in the U.S. was chopped up by everyone's least favorite movie bowdlerizer, Harvey Weinstein. Even so, it's a masterpiece. Wong's pizazzy editing choices balance visual spectacle with intimate scenes of Leung executing stunning martial arts choreography.
'In the Mood for Love' (2001)
Often compared to "Brief Encounter," much of the restrained, '60s-set romance takes place in a hotel where strangers (Leung and frequent co-star Maggie Cheung) discover their spouses are having an affair. Drawn together in swoony scenes shot by Wong's ace cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, the stars embody the title so vividly that you may need a cigarette afterward. That's probably why "In the Mood" currently sits at No. 24 on Sight and Sound's list of the greatest movies ever made.
'Infernal Affairs' (2004)
When I did a list of movie remakes that improve upon their source material, several readers wrote to indicate I must have forgotten to include "The Departed," Martin Scorsese's redo of this twisty thriller. Um, I did not. I think "Infernal Affairs" is funnier, speedier and more stylish than the Scorsese film. Leung is witty and dazzlingly assured as a Hong Kong cop who's maybe/probably/definitely a double agent. Unless he's a triple agent.
Bland Jet Li is the protagonist of this martial arts extravaganza, an Oscar nominee for best foreign film. He gets to do most of the swordfighting but, in a supporting role, it's Leung's magnetism that pulls us in. As a calligrapher and warrior, Leung's stillness contrasts with director Zhang Yimou's vibrant color palette and gonzo camerawork. Leung, who has said his interest in acting dates to a troubled childhood, pours that trauma into his character's multiple death scenes, from silent to showy.
'Chungking Express' (1996)
This woozy romance features two linked love stories. Leung is the protagonist and narrator of the second, playing an unnamed cop who is mooning over a lost love. Wong maximizes Leung's sex appeal, introducing his character with a glamorous mega-close-up and making him spend much of the movie costumed in a pair of tighty-whities. "Chungking" is mostly about missed romantic opportunities, but when Leung finally smiles at the end, it's as if he's assuring us everything will work out fine.
'Happy Together' (1997)
Wong cast Leung as a star-crossed lover again, but this time the object of his amour is a dude. Most of the film takes place in Buenos Aires and, although there's not much plot, Leung and co-star Leslie Cheung bring the heat — with an assist from Leung's "Chungking" undies.
'Flowers of Shanghai' (1998)
The title characters are sex workers in an elegant brothel with a gimmick: They're all named after flowers. "Flowers" reunited Leung with Taiwanese director Hou, who guided him in his early "City of Sadness." It's a mood piece that lingers over the stories of a several flowers and a customer (Leung), whose passionate reaction to betrayal gets the story in gear.
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