Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Tony Leung Chiu-wai

This month, Tony Leung Chiu-wai sees his Hollywood debut in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. At the age of 59, Leung’s work has spanned five decades and he is the most decorated performer at the Hong Kong Film Awards, winning five awards for Best Actor and two for Best Supporting Actor. Known best for his recurring collaborations with Wong Kar-wai and Maggie Cheung, Leung’s other performances are not to be missed, as evidenced in A City of SadnessLust, Caution, and more. You can read our thoughts on a handful of Leung’s films below.

Hard Boiled (1992)

By Eugene Kang

Hard BoiledJohn Woo certainly got to work with bigger budgets than the one for Hard Boiled, but he may have never topped himself in possibly one of the best action thrillers of all time. Chow Yun-Fat is the actor most associated with Woo and his swagger and action prowess are the anchor for many Hong Kong action films. But Tony Leung is no slouch either. Many Westerners associate Leung with the moody romanticism of Wong Kar-wai films and deservedly so, since Leung is a master. But Leung is an adept physical actor as well. One could argue that the physicality required for his action movies is just as essential to his performance in his quieter, more romantic movies. It is primarily in his body language. Leung seems to know exactly how to hold himself. He is like the best silent film actors, who can convey just about anything through their body language. In Hard Boiled, he plays the brash, angsty undercover police officer who is torn by the violence he must engage in to perform his job. We understand exactly how torn he is not necessarily from the dialogue but in the way that he seems like a live wire, even when he is standing relatively still. Many of the lines he delivers seem tortured, but not in an amateurish, mannered way. A scene in which he connects two wires and electrocutes himself seems to be an extension of the innate electricity of the character. Of course, Leung is also capable of the hardest stunts and the intricate choreography involved in the movie’s many fights. Though Chow Yun-Fat gets many of the hero moments, Tony Leung is right there with him, as good as it gets and never giving the impression that he is above the material.

Tokyo Raiders (2000)

By Alex Sitaras

Tokyo RaidersEarly in Tony Leung’s career, he performed in a number of television comedies where he first got his start in acting. Despite his prowess in weighty, dramatic roles, Leung is quite capable in comedic roles, which we see in Jingle Ma’s action comedy Tokyo Raiders, incidentally released the same year as perhaps Leung’s greatest dramatic work in In the Mood for Love. Leung plays a detective, Lin, who performs opposite ‘interior decorator’ Yung (Ekin Cheung) and Macy (Kelly Chen), a woman whose marriage is on shaky grounds as the groom misses the wedding. Both Lin and Yung (who is in fact not an interior decorator) are searching for the groom, knowing that his work as a businessman has fallen into acts of corruption. Tokyo Raiders is a story of hidden identities, prompting creatively absurd action sequences such as one on jet skis. Leung handles this action comedy with ease, shifting between comedic lines and fights scenes as the story unfolds. Tokyo Raiders went on to have a sequel, Seoul Raiders, with Leung being the sole main cast member to continue in a lead role in the sequel.

2046 (2005)

By Alex Sitaras

20462046 is the kind of film that lives and dies by its performers. There perhaps isn’t anyone else other than Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung that could have brought to life Wong Kar-wai’s vision of unrequited love. Leung plays Chow Mo-wan, his same character in In the Mood for Love, who is a journalist and writer while Cheung plays Su Li-zhen, a woman who, depending on how you see it, Chow loves deeply. The two never commit to being together, but have clearly developed feelings. 2046 is told from Chow’s perspective, Leung providing voiceover to illustrate his love and loss. His narration is yearning yet matter-of-fact. He tells of a mysterious room called 2046 that is immutable; there is no such thing as change or heartbreak within such a room. That number coincides with an apartment room number that houses a number of women who enter and exit Chow’s life. As part of the role, Leung plays, at times, a flirtatious character, and his dalliances with a few of these women recall the closeness Chow felt with Su Li-zhen, particularly his time with Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi). Bai becomes friends with Chow, however their friendship develops into something more, and Bai wants to be with Chow. He does not want the relationship to progress, and to ensure they continue to see each other, Bai makes him pay $10 each time he comes over to reinforce Chow’s idea that their relationship is transactional. In a number of ways, 2046 cuts deeper than In the Mood for Love in its portrayal of hurt, and of a man who will not open his heart to anyone. Leung lends his grace as an actor to play this role, enabling Chow’s character to have nuance – for us to empathize with – and not be so bluntly closed-off.

Lust, Caution (2007)

By Eugene Kang

Lust CautionTony Leung’s open yet pensive face suits him well for the type of sympathetic hero with deep reserves of emotion that he is so well-known for playing. So when that same face is used in his portrayal of the villainous Mr. Yee, the result is both disorienting and chillingly effective. Set during the second Sino-Japanese War, Lust, Caution tells the story of  a Chinese theater troupe that decides to really help the Chinese resistance by taking out Mr. Yee, a high-level government agent notorious for his cruelty and violence. Tang Wei as Wong Chia Chi poses as an elite wife who gradually tries to ingratiate herself with the overly cautious, enigmatic Yee. The boundaries between fiction and reality are blurred as Chia Chi finds herself embroiled in an affair with Yee that is a constant walk on a razor-thin tightrope. Lust, Caution got buried by the hullabaloo surrounding its explicit sex scenes, which got the film banned in China. Tang Wei’s career took a huge blow from which she never quite recovered from, at least in China, whereas Tony Leung’s career remained mostly intact. 

Lust, Caution is not without its flaws. The film does sag under its lengthy runtime, but the interactions between Tang and Yee are electric. Knowing that Chia Chi is in constant danger and seeing her act her way out of life and death situations is a stark contrast to the cool, shark-like demeanor that Tony Leung projects for most of the film. But when his guard finally comes down in an act of sexual violence, it is truly astonishing and chilling. Much credit goes, of course, to Ang Lee’s meticulous direction of the underlying emotional undercurrents, something he is known for, but primarily, both Tang Wei and Tony Leung’s performance. Tony Leung could easily carry a movie by himself, but when he was paired with someone as fiercely committed as Tang Wei in her first film role ever, his talent becomes even more apparent.

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