Tony Leung is making his Hollywood debut in 2021’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. However his longtime followers are nicely conscious of his explicit onscreen energy.
Picture: USA Movies

The ability lies in his hooded eyes. Giant, darkish, and — to make use of a stereotypical descriptor sincerely — inscrutable beneath thick brows often tilted in angles of unspecified melancholy. Once they draw you in, it abruptly turns into slightly exhausting to breathe. You possibly can’t look away. You end up considering that if he quietly informed you to burn your home down, you’d in all probability do it with a smile. He’s undeniably good-looking, however his bodily attraction by itself could be finest described as “uncle next door.” It’s his virtuoso presence — the way in which he speaks together with his eyes — that transforms him into somebody that makes you whimper “daddy.”

Tony Leung. I need to admit that I used to be stunned to study that 2021 marks the enduring Hong Kong film star’s Hollywood debut. I assumed that he, like quite a few different Asian cinema superstars, had on the very least performed a high-profile cameo in the way in which of Bingbing Fan, Xun Zhou, and Donnie Yen, or starred in a tacky B-flick like Chow Yun Fat and Boa. However on second thought, after all Tony Leung couldn’t have been bothered to take part within the frivolities of Hollywood till the age of 59. After dazzling audiences in Asia for therefore lengthy, he didn’t appear to require the eye of the English-language press, the place Bingbing Fan, as soon as the highest-paid actress in China, is consistently known as “the X-Men actress.” American audiences largely stay in their very own galaxies, unfamiliar with the blazing suns that gentle up the screens of Asia.

Regardless of Hollywood’s observe file with Orientalism, nonetheless, I felt cautiously optimistic about Leung’s Hollywood debut, within the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Asian-led entry Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I need to admit I screamed slightly when Tony Leung’s bed room eyes did their factor within the trailer (that look that handed between Leung and co-star Fala Chen appeared to comprise a century’s price of devotion). I knew then that I must make an effort to root for Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi, the titular hero to Leung’s anti-hero, once I lastly watched the film. Certainly, when American audiences meet Leung, he’s outacting his co-star as a grief-stricken warlord whose humanity and monstrosity wrestle inside him. At occasions it seems like director Destin Daniel Cretton has forgotten who his protagonist is, so shifting is Leung’s portrayal of sorrow.

I personally have been fortunate sufficient to have drooled over Leung’s onscreen smolder for years, admiring the way in which he embodies a Hemingway iceberg; the majority of his characters’ ideas, reminiscences, goals, and wishes all lurk heavy beneath his floor. You are able to do no improper in casting Tony Leung, whether or not the function is a meticulously written character in a tightly scripted film or is a part of a shoot that has no script to speak of. He’ll ship soul and magnetism, whether or not in a splashy motion blockbuster, a trippy arthouse romance, or a taut psychological thriller. He has vary (and 60-plus films underneath his belt, not together with his well-known TV work), however you’d be hard-pressed to seek out Leung taking part in a personality who’s not a moody man of few phrases. Maybe on some degree he’s typecast, however who can blame the administrators? Once you put Leung in your film, you will need to give him room to stare, ideally with a cigarette.

The warrior poet Tony Leung in Pink Cliff.
Picture: Magnolia Photos

There are 4 administrators who appear to actually perceive this energy of Tony Leung. First up is John Woo, whose two-part Three Kingdoms epic Pink Cliff (2008–2009) stars Leung as Zhou Yu, an excellent normal and tactician who prefers making music, and making candy like to his spouse, to creating conflict. The movie itself is bloated, tonally inconsistent, and overly campy, but when there’s one factor it received proper, it’s utilizing Leung with the utmost precision — in frequent close-ups, with temper lighting.

A scene the place Zhou Yu matches wits in opposition to Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Zhuge Liang in an impromptu zither duet is about inside a darkish chamber lit solely by the glow of oil lamps. Because the zither strings start to vibrate, the twanging notes rising, Leung’s eyes are skilled on Kaneshiro, a smile on his lips as prompt recognition of an equal, a worthy opponent he can devour. His face, framed by sparkles of flames and edged in gold, stares by the display proper into your soul. When he appears to be like down at his instrument, shoulders squared and brows knit in focus, his spouse watches with a sure figuring out look on her face. She understands precisely how that zither feels. Leung reaches the climax of his tune with sturdy, escalating strokes. Although the scene is supposed to speak the 2 males’s opposing positions on conflict, their alternate is undeniably sensual, leaving everybody’s mouth slightly dry.

The tender executioner Tony Leung in Lust, Warning.
Picture: Focus Options

Then there’s Ang Lee, whose espionage masterpiece Lust, Warning (2007) provides us Leung’s flip as Mr. Yee, a Chinese language excessive official betraying his nation to Japanese invaders. It’s his solely actually villainous function previous to taking part in Wenwu in Shang-Chi. Even so, Leung manages to make Mr. Yee somebody for whom we’d betray our nation, if he’d solely take a look at us like we had been the one good factor in his life. All through the movie, Leung telegraphs the character’s private capability for cruelty. Mr. Yee’s suave manners are consistently veined with a chilly menace. He’s a snake — easy, coiled, poised to strike — and every of his visits to the mah-jongg desk alongside blinged-out housewives performs like a viper gliding by a hen coop.

Throughout Leung’s first one-on-one with Wei Tang’s Jiazhi Wang, the beginner spy who turns into his lover/sufferer, we watch as predator circles prey. The 2 have dinner in an upscale restaurant, and Mr. Yee seems conscious of one thing off concerning the alluring girl sitting throughout from him. But Leung slumps relaxed in his chair, his gaze cool and his physique nonetheless as he merely watches Tang.

Leung appears to develop in energy within the darkness of this film. Whereas Tang’s character chatters on to refill area, Leung solely smirks and bids her to talk extra. Is she succeeding in seducing her mark? Tang’s character appears to suppose so, however we see a combination of starvation and amusement in Leung as he observes and interprets her each transfer, planning his subsequent. When Tang sips her cognac, leaving lipstick on the glass, the digital camera cuts to a close-up of Leung’s face, his eyes flicking to the damning pink stain that betrays her less-than-refined true identification. A barely perceptible look of pity flashes throughout his face. We study in that second that he doesn’t hunt for pleasure, however harbors items of a young coronary heart buried deep beneath his drive to outlive in any respect prices. A tortured villain all of us want we may save.

The reluctant patriot Tony Leung in Hero.
Picture: Miramax

In Yimou Zhang’s unintentionally high-camp martial-arts fantasy Hero (2002), Leung performs a legendary murderer and, together with the remainder of the beautiful forged, gamely broods by every color-blocked chapter of a film that’s principally fashion and little substance. Reunited with frequent display companions Maggie Cheung and Ziyi Zhang in a doomed love triangle, Leung’s Damaged Sword is preoccupied with the destiny of the world. He has loads of trigger to glare into the center distance for lengthy stretches with out saying a phrase, misplaced in thought. One second clad head-to-toe in crimson pink, one other in sky blue, his lengthy hair eternally whipping within the wind, he’s the fixed eye sweet fed to us to make the stilted plot go down simpler. (The film was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar.)

In the course of the “red” chapter of the film, a battalion of archers rains arrows down on a defiant calligraphy faculty for refusing to yield to the conquering military. Whereas Cheung and Jet Li’s characters deflect them utilizing what may solely be described as wuxia magic, Leung dips the most important calligraphy brush you’ve ever seen in vermillion ink and writes the Chinese language character for “sword” on a large white sheet (like I stated, excessive camp). The room is dim, with daylight filtering by the papered home windows, highlighting Leung’s tall cheekbones and sensuous lips. Sluggish strings play at full blast whereas gusts of wind trigger Leung’s free, chest-length hair to whip backwards and forwards as he commits his whole physique to this dance of calligraphy, imbuing every stroke together with his fireplace. The digital camera cuts between full-body photographs of Leung and close-ups of his face in whole focus, and whether or not you suppose this film is a poetic masterpiece or oversaturated propaganda, you continue to end up mesmerized by that look of weary piety in his eyes, as if the fervour he feels hurts him at each exertion. In a film that tells a narrative of navigating obligation and need, it took a expertise as nice as Leung to actually categorical the insufferable weight of all of it.

The fourth director is Wong Kar-Wai, whose Within the Temper for Love (2000) is one among seven collaborations with Leung, about, because the late Roger Ebert describes, individuals “[who] are in the mood for love, but not in the time and place for it.” The movie, which earned Leung the Greatest Actor award at Cannes, is legendary for its evocative magnificence on each degree, so it’s tough to decide on only one occasion of Leung setting the display ablaze. However there’s one quick scene, set on the red-curtained resort the place Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung’s characters repeatedly meet — to not cheat on their respective untrue spouses, however to torture themselves and one another with need. The movie’s signature tune, “Yumeji’s Theme,” is all we hear, starting with regular plucks of strings, main right into a melody of 1 unhappy, remoted violin.

Our lovelorn leads transfer in sluggish movement, bathed in yellow gentle in order that they give the impression of being as in the event that they’re submerged in golden syrup. Cheung appears to be like over her shoulder from the doorway of the resort room, her face a resolute masks. As a result of shot’s shallow depth of subject, Leung’s face is out of focus when he meets her within the doorway, however sharpens as she struts previous him into the room. Their solely actual interplay is the pregnant pause through the assembly of their eyes, establishing a mutual understanding of their determined enterprise. Leung doesn’t transfer a muscle as she walks by, however he retains her in his peripheral imaginative and prescient, as if he’s ready for her to stroll proper out once more. Or maybe he’s afraid of what’s going to occur subsequent, if some new improvement will upset their uncommon, delicate association — in the event that they find yourself crossing traces they swore they wouldn’t cross. On this scene, Leung’s character is so deeply susceptible, so tense with feelings that he appears to be one of many string devices taking part in the rating, a cello maybe, tightly wound and vibrating at a low pitch. The tragedy of Leung’s character is his incapability to unwind, to let go of the fears and an idiotic sense of propriety that hold him from giving into love.

The person who acts together with his eyes.
Picture: Marvel Studios

We frequently discuss nice actors and their capacity to ship their traces, however extra needs to be stated about those that make do with the fewest phrases, or none in any respect, as Leung has mastered over his practically 4 a long time earlier than the digital camera. Maybe I’m grasping, however in Shang-Chi there appeared to be too few moments of wordlessness and too many expository monologues — in Mandarin, no much less, moderately than Leung’s native Cantonese. However to start with of the film, we’re handled to an exciting and flirtatious battle between Wenwu and his future spouse, in a martial-arts sequence paying homage to the intimate dialogue of limbs between Leung’s Ip Man and Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er in The Grandmaster. As Leung and Fala Chen have interaction in a playful dance, it’s minimize with slowed-down moments of compromising poses and explosive glances, all amidst swirling leaves and beams of sunshine. The entire scene is so easy and so romantic that it seems like it’s lifted proper out of a Korean drama, one of many highest types of fashionable Asian romance. It is sufficient to make you neglect Wenwu is a centuries-old conflict legal.

In case you are like me, you may spend the remainder of the film questioning if this man who appears to be like at his love with such affection is a villain who have to be defeated, or one whose salvation we needs to be praying for. It’s exhausting to not fall in love with Tony Leung.

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