We are 48 hours away from the premiere of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Over the last few weeks, as we approach the release, if you’ve been visiting this site often, you’ve been reading me hyperventilate about the film’s villain, Wenwu, played by Tony Leung, the legend. A legend that many of you may not be familiar with because he’s not western mainstream. He is, however, very much mainstream in the East. And he’s also known as an icon for cinephiles, for the global film community, and that includes Hollywood, Tony Leung does not need an introduction. Everybody from Hollywood to Hong Kong talks about Tony Leung with reverence – and in Hollywood, for sure, they’ve talked about him as an elusive get. That’s what Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton admitted when he was asked early on in the Shang-Chi development process who his dream casting was for the movie’s big bad:
“Immediately, he thought of one of his favorite actors. “Tony Leung,” he said, “but he’ll never do it.”
That’s the story that Destin tells GQ in a new profile of Tony for the magazine written by the acclaimed writer and academic Alexander Chee. Hats off to GQ for this pairing – because if Tony Leung is a big get for the MCU, he’s a HUUUUUGE get for GQ. And if you’re featuring Tony Leung in an American magazine, this Chinese icon who does very little western press and has barely shown up to promote Shang-Chi, it’s a smart and respectful move to assign the piece to an award-winning, highly accomplished essayist.
This is an introductory profile for the uninitiated but also an in-depth interview that highlights a master’s process, without veering into pretentious territory. And remember, this is part of the promo push for a superhero movie. But here we are, treating Tony’s performance like it’s an award season contender – as it should be!
When you see Shang-Chi, you’ll appreciate the layers in his portrayal of Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s father. That Tony wasn’t just there to collect MCU money. Almost every review of the movie so far has highlighted what he brings to this story and how he elevates it, how he says so much with his signature feature: his eyes. That’s the thing about Tony Leung: he never needs much dialogue because those eyes are acting all of it. And what I love about Alexander Chee’s GQ piece is the focus on Tony’s eyes. Alexander mentions it himself…
“…is ability to sit in front of the camera alone and move from desolation to lust to tenderness to quiet fury, just with his eyes, in a single scene, is mesmerizing.”
And Simu Liu also goes deep on Tony’s eyes:
“Yet sharing scenes with Leung, Liu soon found himself in a confrontation he hadn’t quite imagined, with those incredible eyes he’d grown up watching. “He’s able to convey so much with a single look,” Liu says. “It’s one thing to see that captured onscreen; it’s another to have those eyes across from you, piercing through to the depths of your soul.”
The reason this hits for me personally, and may resonate with others of East Asian descent, is because we can be sensitive about our eyes. For many of us, our eyes have been weaponised against us. We’ve been mocked for our eyes, for the shape of them, for the size of them – there are common slurs and gestures that we’ve seen over and over again that are meant to belittle us. This is why it was a sticking point for Sasha when we were workshopping the anti-Asian racism PSA that we produced earlier this year – which you can see here. Sasha insisted that much of the shots included a variety of close-ups on the eyes, precisely because our eyes have been targeted.
East Asian eyes, then, are almost never noted for their beauty. When we read books, when we hear people talking about eyes and beauty, it’s often “sparkling blue eyes” or “romantic hazel eyes” or “mysterious green eyes”. Our eyes are most often brown – they can be warm and cold, they can be mischievous and kind, they can be blank and enigmatic, they are equally as exquisite, but that’s seldom acknowledged in western culture, we don’t get the eye shine.
But here is one of our master actors, known for his eye skills, known for the magic he can perform with just his eyes, being highlighted for specifically this reason…
Alexander Chee, who is also East Asian, I know he gets it. And the focus on Tony’s eyes not just in his piece but as more and more people see this movie, it’ll be a major takeaway. Along with just the general thirsting over Tony that will likely be happening by this weekend. Take a look at these pictures:
Shang-Chi offers a whole two hours of that sexiness.
To read the full profile of Tony Leung by Alexander Chee, head to GQ. There’s a great story in the article about what it was like with him on set, how he prepared, and how Destin Daniel Cretton had to figure out how to direct Tony because, well, Tony gets it right the first time.