Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens in ten days. This is a big movie, Marvel’s first theatrical release since the pandemic began and its first blockbuster with an East Asian lead superhero. So, of course, casting Shang-Chi and finding the actor best-suited to carry this responsibility was of paramount importance. When you see the movie, though, you will realise that casting Shang-Chi’s antagonist might have been just as vital. Shang-Chi was not written specifically for Simu Liu. But I wonder…was the script’s villain written specifically for Tony Leung?
Once you’ve watched it, you’ll know what I mean – I’m not sure anyone else could have brought to this role what Tony Leung puts into it. Which is why “villain” isn’t even the right word for it, but if we have to use it, in this context, being that we’re talking about Marvel, Tony Leung’s Wenwu, aka The Mandarin, is one of the MCU’s best villains. Since I’m biased, I’ll go ahead and say that, for me, he is the MCU’s BEST VILLAIN. Because he’s not really a villain. He is part of Shang-Chi. He is the origin. There would be no Shang-Chi without Wenwu and The Mandarin, like there would be no Luke Skywalker without Anakin and Darth Vader. So in order to make this work, in order to elevate Wenwu, The Mandarin, above all its historical controversy, the xenophobia, you need one of the greatest actors in the world. An actor who for the first time in his near 40-year career is making his first Hollywood movie.
That tells you something about the character, how special it is, and why Tony Leung – who, trust me, does not need the money, not even Marvel money, considering how successful he is in Asia and his previous disinterest in doing projects outside of Asia – finally said yes.
The review embargo on Shang-Chi lifted yesterday and while the movie is being very well-received, critics are overwhelmingly unanimous on one performance: Tony Leung’s. He will make you swoon. He will make you fist-pump. He will make you angry. He will make you cry. He is at once hot and cool in this movie, so f-cking stylish, so slick, so menacing, so hurt, and so complicated. And he’s not here to collect a paycheque, he’s giving the same commitment to this role as he did in In The Mood For Love, the film for which he is best known to western audiences, for which he received global acclaim.
So should we start the campaign? Marvel movies don’t really get considered for awards in the non-tech categories. And certainly not in the acting categories. Michael B Jordan, in my opinion, should have been Oscar nominated for his work in Black Panther. And Tony Leung should definitely be nominated for his work on Shang-Chi. Given what the reaction has been so far, and if the movie does well at the box office, I wonder whether or not Marvel will put some effort and money behind a case for him. If, that is, Tony even cares.
As we saw last week, neither Tony nor Michelle Yeoh showed up for the Hollywood premiere. Tony has a really low-key reputation. It’s been this way for years, and those of us who follow East Asian and particularly Hong Kong entertainment news are familiar with his approach to fame – he’s reclusive by western standards. And even when he does make himself available, he’s not all that verbose. I interviewed him at TIFF in 2007 for Lust, Caution, and he was lovely and sweet, but not all that talkative. And it isn’t so much that he’s wary of the media, it’s more that he’s an internal person, and quite shy. Many of his co-stars said the same last week when I spoke to them on the Shang-Chi junket. Tony operates on a contained energy – his generosity and grace is demonstrated not through words but through presence: he does not retreat to his trailer between takes, he doesn’t have his phone with him on set, he’s THERE, and he’s observing and absorbing, he’s curious, he’s collaborative, and he’s sharing in the experience, but quietly. This is not a person, then, who’s after any awards. But if, by chance, he’s open to it, that campaign would be an easy sell, even to the still-white Oscar Academy. Especially if, after the movie comes out, mainstream audiences finally meet him and see what they’ve been missing.
And in that sense, maybe it’s best that he’s doing virtually no western press. Because their introduction to him will be the way he perhaps is intending it to be – on the screen, in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. For those in the East though, Tony covers the first issue of ELLE Men Singapore.
Flip through this carousel to appreciate the beauty of this man, now 59 years old.
I’ve been watching Tony Leung since I was eleven years old, renting cassette tapes of Hong Kong drama series from the Chinese malls. He is as gorgeous now as he was then. Those shots of him in the turtleneck, MY GOD.
This is worth savouring too because it’s rare. Like I said, he doesn’t do this often. And there’s an interview too. Which is worth the read whether you’re coming to Tony for the first time or if you’ve been a fan for almost your entire life, like me. It was because of this article, for example, that I realised that Wenwu is his first time playing “a villainous role”. Not that Tony Leung is always the “good guy”, it’s just that almost all his characters can’t be defined in black and white terms. Take his role in Lust, Caution – there is no way you would call him a hero, he does some f-cked up sh-t, and yet there’s humanity in the performance that makes it a lot more nuanced that someone you simply root for or against.
Also? Apparently his experience with Shang-Chi opened him up to considering more English-language opportunities. He mentions a television series in his interview with ELLE Men Singapore:
“Perhaps because I started out with TV, and with the wonderful experience of working with Marvel this time, the idea for such a production seems interesting,” he says. If it all goes well, filming will commence sometime next year in Vancouver. “Think of all that room for creativity!” Leung adds, his face lighting up.
Not surprisingly, none of the Hollywood trades have even mentioned whatever project it is that Tony Leung could possibly be looking at to shoot in Vancouver next year. Can someone please get on this?!
To read the full article on Tony Leung, head to ELLE Singapore. Highly recommend.