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The essential Tony Leung: Where to find the ‘Shang-Chi’ standout’s best movies

Tony Leung in Marvel Studios’ “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”
Tony Leung in the movie “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
(Marvel Studios)
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In the swooningly beautiful 1990 film “Days of Being Wild,” Tony Leung gets one of the greatest entrances — and exits — ever accorded an actor in a single movie. Remarkably, the entrance and the exit are the same scene.

In the movie’s final moments, the writer-director Wong Kar-wai turns the camera on a character we haven’t met yet: a handsome young cardsharp in a low-ceilinged flat, preparing for a night on the town. Who this man is and how he relates to the other characters in this drifty ’60s Hong Kong roundelay is a mystery. Still, you can tell a lot about him just from the way he buffs his nails, runs a comb through his hair and casually slips a deck into his pocket. He’s all slippery elegance and wily charm, someone whose mere presence renders words superfluous. He’s Tony Leung, in other words.

That quietly heart-stopping introduction/farewell marked the start of something extraordinary. After “Days of Being Wild,” Wong and Leung went on to make six more features together, a hopefully unfinished collaboration that cemented them both as world-cinema titans. (Many of them are available in Criterion Collection’s lavish Wong Kar-wai box set, which was released earlier this year.)

But if Leung has been Wong’s most steadfast on-screen muse, over the past 40 years he’s racked up credits with no shortage of other noteworthy filmmakers, including Hou Hsiao-hsien, John Woo, Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou and Tran Anh Hung. He’s played husbands and lovers, gangsters and cops, dynastic warlords and kung fu masters, heroes and villains. He’s become a sex symbol, a style icon and one of the world’s biggest movie stars — all without ever appearing in a Hollywood movie.

Until now. Leung (often identified by his full name, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, to avoid confusion with fellow Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Ka-fai), is getting a lot of attention for his work in the new Marvel superhero epic “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” As Shang-Chi’s estranged father and one of Marvel’s more notorious supervillains, the Mandarin, Leung gives a playful, brooding and ultimately devastating performance that’s even more resonant — emotionally, aesthetically, iconographically — if you’ve seen some of his others.

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Here is my extremely non-definitive list of 12 all-time great Leung films and performances, presented in no particular order and as a series of double bills (with links to streaming platforms where you can watch them, although some are available only on DVD). It omits some of my personal favorites and perhaps some of yours. But for those encountering Leung for the first time in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and eager to see more, all of these should be considered essential viewing.

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‘Ashes of Time’ (1994) and ‘Hero’ (2002)

Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung clash in front of a waterfall in "Hero."
Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in “Hero.”
(Miramax)

As it happens, both Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Tony Leung Ka-fai appeared in Wong’s “Ashes of Time,” a shimmering, enigmatic swordplay drama that was under-appreciated in its initial mid-’90s tour of festivals and art-house theaters. (The significantly reworked “Ashes of Time Redux” was released in 2008.) While neither “Ashes” nor Zhang Yimou’s ravishing martial-arts epic “Hero” features Leung (Chiu-wai) at his deepest, they are tributes to his matinee-idol magnetism and his ability to slip effortlessly into period roles, especially if there’s radiantly windswept hair involved. Just watch him do floor calligraphy in “Hero” and tell me you don’t want to see the rest.

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‘A City of Sadness’ (1989) and ‘Flowers of Shanghai’ (1998)

People laugh in a dinner scene from "Flowers of Shanghai."
A scene from the film “Flowers of Shanghai.”
(Criterion Collection)

The revered Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien likes to film in unbroken, distanced long takes with minimal closeups — not a style exactly conducive to star turns. All the more remarkable, then, that in these two masterpieces, Hou taps into Leung’s gift for expressing emotional volumes with nary a word. In “A City of Sadness,” Leung plays a photographer whose family is swept up in the White Terror violence that convulsed Taiwan from 1949 to 1987. In “Flowers of Shanghai,” he’s a regular visitor at one of that city’s 19th century brothels, or “flower houses.” Leung vanishes seamlessly into these lost worlds, but even a camera this restrained can’t help but love him.

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‘Chungking Express’ (1994) and ‘Infernal Affairs’ (2002)

A scene from the movie "Infernal Affairs."
Tony Leung and Andy Lau in “Infernal Affairs.”
(Asia Media)

A cop comedy and a cop drama par excellence. In Wong’s joyous diptych “Chungking Express,” Leung plays a lovelorn police officer who’s plainly terrible at detecting things, like the fact that the woman of his dreams (Faye Wong) is secretly raiding and redesigning his apartment when he’s out, in the mother of all romantic pranks. (The movie, a personal all-time favorite, also offers delightful proof that Leung has more chemistry with stuffed animals than some actors can manage with each other.) He’s smarter and sadder as a cop who goes deep undercover in Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s tense and soulful gangster thriller “Infernal Affairs,” which Martin Scorsese famously remade, to entertaining but lesser effect, as “The Departed.”

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‘Happy Together’ (1997) and ‘Lust, Caution’ (2007)

Tang Wei and Tony Leung in Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution."
Tang Wei and Tony Leung in “Lust, Caution.”
(Chan Kam Chuen / Focus Features)

Love and lust become corrosive forces in both Wong’s “Happy Together,” which stars Leung and Leslie Cheung as a gay couple unhappily adrift in Buenos Aires, and Ang Lee’s World War II-era spy drama “Lust, Caution,” in which Leung plays a corrupt bureaucrat locked in a slowly riveting tango of desire with a femme fatale (Tang Wei). These two doomed romances could scarcely be more antithetical: “Happy Together” pulses with heat even at its saddest, while “Lust, Caution,” for all its controversy-stirring acres of bared flesh, has a chilly anti-eroticism. Quite a contrast, too, between Leung’s aching vulnerability in the former and his cruelly calculating reserve in the latter.

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‘Red Cliff’ (2008-09) and ‘The Grandmaster’ (2013)

Ziyi Zhang spars with Tony Leung in "The Grandmaster."
Ziyi Zhang and Tony Leung in “The Grandmaster.”
(The Weinstein Company)

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Leung appeared in several early John Woo classics, including “Bullet in the Head” and “Hard-Boiled,” but “Red Cliff,” Woo’s magnificent two-part adaptation of the 14th century Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” might be their towering achievement: Even when heavily armored and surrounded by a cast of thousands, Leung holds the screen above all others, conveying tactical genius, emotional ardor and a sly rapport with his main co-star (Takeshi Kaneshiro). He gives a similar wow of a performance as a very different kind of fighter, the legendary Ip Man, in “The Grandmaster,” Wong’s dizzyingly kinetic plunge into the shadow-world of China’s greatest martial artists.

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‘In the Mood for Love’ (2000) and ‘2046’ (2005)

Maggie Cheung stars as Mrs Chan and Tony Leung stars as Mr. Chow in the Wong Kar-wai film movie "In The Mood For Love."
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in “In the Mood for Love.”
(USA Films)

One of the pleasures of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is that it’s fully aware of what a star it has in Leung and even seems to pay tribute to him, and to his work in these two remarkable Wong films in particular. In “In the Mood for Love,” he plays a 1960s writer who falls for his across-the-hall neighbor (the great Maggie Cheung); in “2046,” he plays that same man (or does he?), a chivalrous soul turned unrepentant cad, forever ruined by the memory of his great, lost love. I don’t know if these are Leung’s two greatest performances, but they are the ones I can’t imagine his career without, the ones in which this famed heartthrob, whether luxuriating in whorls of cigarette smoke or whispering a sacred secret, becomes as much the desirer as the desired, an avatar of obsessive longing to rival James Stewart in “Vertigo.”

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