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Header image: Still from In the Mood for Love (2000)
When you picture a bona fide Hong Kong movie star, one of the first actors that comes to mind is Tony Leung Chiu-wai. As one of the most prolific figures in local cinema, Leung has etched a career for himself as everything from an action star to a romantic hero.
Starting out in television in 1981 before breaking out into movies in 1983, Leung has been a mainstay of Asian and arthouse films for decades. Most well-known for his films with frequent collaborator Wong Kar-wai, Leung became a household name across Greater China as a talented actor who makes the most out of every moment he’s on screen.
Whether you were introduced to Tony Leung in the Marvel blockbuster Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or have been following his career since Mad, Mad 83, you would be hard-pressed to fit Leung’s entire filmography into one sitting.
With almost sixty films to his name, it takes more than one list to encapsulate all of his greatest movies, so we have highlighted our own non-definitive list of some of Tony Leung’s best films that you should add to your must-watch list.
As one of the most defining LGBTQ+ films in Hong Kong cinema, Happy Together catapulted auteur Wong Kar-wai to the international stage when he won the Best Director award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.
Leung and Leslie Cheung portray an on-again-off-again couple from Hong Kong on holiday in Buenos Aires, with their old problems following them and new ones constantly arising.
In a film dealing with many themes such as cultural identity, marginalisation, and queerness, both Leung and Cheung give their all in their performances, lending realism and universality to the depicted relationship.
Award-winning director Ang Lee helms this tale of sexual espionage set in World War II. Leung portrays the cunning and calculating Mr Yee, a traitor working for the secret police department under the puppet government set up by the Japanese occupation in China.
In Lust, Caution, university student Wang Chia-chi goes undercover to seduce Mr Yee with the goal of assassinating him. Leung gives an electric, arresting performance, giving depth to a villain role that may have fallen flat in the hands of a lesser actor.
As a film with minimal dialogue, much of Cyclo’s impact comes from the striking on-screen presence of Leung and his co-stars (Lê Văn Lộc and Trần Nữ Yên Khê), as well as the direction of Vietnamese-born French film director Trần Anh Hùng.
Cyclo tells the story of a poor cycle rickshaw driver who is forced to join a gang when his cyclo gets stolen. Both he and his older sister soon become entwined in the grasp of a gangster who is also a poet, played by Leung. As the gangster-slash-poet, Leung is both brooding and menacing as he saunters across the screen. Cyclo is ultimately a powerful showcase for all involved and lets Leung flex his acting chops in a complicated role.
Chungking Express is one of the earliest films Leung made with Wong Kar-wai. Essential viewing for any fan of Hong Kong cinema, Leung stars as an unnamed police officer nursing his wounds from a break-up with a flight attendant. It is then that eccentric snack bar worker Faye (played by Faye Wong) falls for him and starts letting herself into his apartment to redecorate, in the hopes of cheering him up.
Chungking Express features Leung at his very best, portraying his role with romantic sincerity and earnestness. He says a whole lot with very little and portrays great depth through subtle body language. Close to two decades since it was first released, Chungking Express continues to have an enduring legacy and is widely considered a modern classic.
Although some may know Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s masterpiece solely as the film that was later adapted into the Academy Award-winning blockbuster The Departed, it stands on its own as one of the hallmarks of modern Hong Kong cinema.
Infernal Affairs is a veritable one-two-punch of great performances from Leung and co-star Andy Lau, giving weight to their characters as men who struggle to reconcile with who they have been pretending to be for a decade.
In this, Leung plays the cop who has gone undercover as a triad gangster to Lau’s triad gangster who has gone undercover as a cop. What ensues is a dizzying game of cat-and-mouse as the two race against time to unmask the other before it’s too late.
Directed by legendary auteur Wong Kar-wai, In the Mood for Love depicts a love affair that never quite happens. Leung gives one of the most romantically intense performances of his career in a film that would be more infuriating had it not been so masterfully done.
Leung stars opposite Maggie Cheung as neighbours who discover that their respective spouses are cheating on them together. In a story of romance and restraint, the two characters dance around their deep feelings for one another to devastating results.
As a quasi-sequel to Wong’s previous films—Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love— 2046 sees Leung reprising his role as Chow Mo-wan, this time set in the aftermath of his unrealised affair with Maggie Cheung’s character from In the Mood for Love.
2046 follows several story arcs loosely connected to a novel Chow is writing about a futuristic world where lonely souls travel to room 2046 in the hopes of recapturing memories. All the while, a series of intriguing women inspire Chow’s writing. Leung presents a new range of complexity to a familiar character who is irrecoverably changed, drawing in viewers with new emotions and recognised motives.
In director John Woo’s last Hong Kong film before going into Hollywood, Hard Boiled is a rip-roaring film about a group of gangsters and the cops that go after them. Leung plays Alan, an undercover police officer who teams up with Inspector “Tequila” Yuen (Chow Yun-fat) to take down a triad boss, all the while evading being found out as an informant.
In an action-packed affair, Leung provides a welcome emotional anchor to the violence around him. Although this may be Leung’s lesser-known undercover cop movie compared to Infernal Affairs, Hard Boiled endures as an entertaining and well-choreographed romp.
Leung finally decided to make his Hollywood debut in the first Marvel film to feature a majority Asian cast. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings follows the titular character Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu, as he travels back to his homeland to face his father Wenwu (Leung) and the notorious Ten Rings organisation.
Although acting as the primary antagonist, Leung portrays Wenwu with enough humanity to bring depth to the complicated character, his pain, and his motivations. In the blockbuster film that largely introduced him to Western audiences, Leung makes his role count, bringing to the silver screen his seasoned experience as a veteran actor to much fanfare.