In July 2019, Kevin Feige stood before hundreds of rabid Marvel fans huddled together at San Diego Comic-Con. Of the dozens of A-list celebrities who graced the stage that day with Feige — Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, Mahershala Ali — there was one actor who was notable for his absence. But when Feige uttered his name, a ripple spread through Hall H peppered with plentiful Wooooos! and Whaaat? that live on forever thanks to YouTube.
That name? Tony Leung, a 58-year-old screen icon who plays “The Mandarin” in the upcoming film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Mainstream Marvel fans can be forgiven for not knowing of Tony Leung before he was cast in Shang-Chi. Leung has a long filmography primarily rooted in Hong Kong, although his work has international acclaim — for good reason. He has the range to play the tender, romantic leads in Wong Kar-wai movies like In the Mood for Love (2000), yet slip easily into the guise of undercover cops in films like Hard Boiled (1992) and the Infernal Affairs trilogy. But Leung’s filmography isn’t readily available via streaming algorithms. (At the time of writing, there are only two movies featuring Leung on Netflix: 2011’s The Great Magician and 2013’s The Grandmaster. One of his most acclaimed movies, 2000’s In the Mood for Love, is on HBO Max. More on that later.)
Shang-Chi is primed to be Marvel’s take on martial arts-action epics and make a big splash in the Asian film market. But the film is not just Leung’s Marvel debut. It’s his debut in Hollywood, period. It comes after decades of an already prolific career that’s earned him the nickname “Asia’s Clark Gable.”
As the Mandarin, arguably one of the most important villains joining the MCU in Phase Four Leung might also be primed to fix one of Marvel’s biggest problems: a lack of great bad guys. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the basics.
Who is Tony Leung?
Leung had a rough start in life. Born in Hong Kong in 1962, he was abandoned by an alcoholic father at a young age. But at 22 in 1984, Tony Leung’s road to stardom began when he landed the lead roles in the TV shows The Duke of Mount Deer and Police Cadet. Leung’s name recognition grew after he starred in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 masterpiece A City of Sadness — the first Taiwanese film to win the illustrious Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. (The same award was given to Joker in 2019 and Nomadland in 2020.) Then, in 1992 Leung truly shot to fame in John Woo’s action epic Hard Boiled, in which Leung starred opposite Chow Yun-fat as a police officer deep undercover.
Leung spent most of the next two decades collaborating with filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, first in Days of Being Wild in 1990 through to The Grandmaster in 2013, in which Leung played real-life Wing Chun master Ip Man. Like Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, or the Coen Brothers and Frances McDormand, Leung’s visage is seared in audience memories as integral to Wong’s particular brand of cinematic storytelling.
Wong’s bold, saturated colors, and intimate framing — a result of Wong’s strong partnership with cinematographer Christopher Doyle — worked to further Leung’s allure. His subtle facial expressions communicate a deep well of emotions that can shift at any moment. And though it’s not a Wong Kar-wai film, my enduring image of Leung is his turn in Hard Boiled, when Leung’s undercover cop betrays the crime lord he had grown loyal to.
Between director John Woo’s slow-motion visuals, Michael Gibbs’ saxophone-heavy noir soundtrack, and Leung’s portrayal of a man torn by regret and anger, it was this performance that sprang to mind when Feige announced Leung as a new star in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s what made me go, whoa.
If there is one movie that defines Leung as an artist though, it’s In the Mood for Love. Set in mid-century British Hong Kong, it tells the story of Chow (Leung), a journalist whose wife cheats on him with the spouse of a neighbor (Maggie Cheung). Amidst their heartbreak, the two develop deep feelings for one another. In the Mood for Love is a career-defining masterpiece both for its director and its actors, including Tony Leung. As writer Alex Moore observed in a 2017 piece for The Cinessential, it’s the relationship between the director and the actors which lend the picture its power.
“One gets a sense that there’s a roiling maelstrom of emotion behind [the actors’] quiet performances,” Moore writes. “Every interaction they have, from passing each other on the street to sitting across from each other at a restaurant, embodies the frisson of attraction and the melancholy of loneliness. These performances, subtle and complex, complement Wong Kar-wai’s directorial decisions.”
Tony Leung and the MCU
On its face, a Marvel blockbuster designed to sell action figures is an odd brick in the road for Leung. But much like Leung’s performances, there’s more that lies beneath the surface.
At first glance, it’s discordant. Leung is a celebrated actor whose movies are embraced by arthouse enthusiasts. The “MCU” is the Disney-owned, Disney-powered manifestation of comic books and fandom.
On top of that disconnect, Leung plays the Mandarin, a Chinese supervillain — created by Stan Lee — who typifies racist and Orientalist hysteria borne out of the early 20th century. (The MCU’s version of the character is a mish-mash with Sax Rohmer’s pulp villain Fu Manchu, the definitive Yellow Peril villain. The character was, for a time, licensed to Marvel, and thus the Shang-Chi character was born.)
Here in 2021, Marvel has sanded away the most offensive elements of the Mandarin’s original character, transforming him into something more palpable and perhaps even attractive. In the two-minute trailer for Shang-Chi, we see the Mandarin wield envious wealth and power, with an army of ninjas at his command. He has his own helicopter and some serious fashion sense. If he weren’t a supervillain, you might imagine him waltzing into a Las Vegas casino and making it rain.
That Stan Lee’s comic-book villain will be portrayed by the lonely lead of In the Mood for Love might not make a lot of sense, but it is also just as exciting. This isn’t the first time the Marvel machine has brought prestigious outsiders into the MCU, but it’s always fascinating to see them actually become that sought-after action figure, t-shirt, or poster on which the Marvel machine ultimately depends.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will be released in theaters on September 3.