Course:ASIA321/2022/Tony Leung

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This Wiki page covers one of the legends in Asian cinema, Tony Leung. His work as an actor and celebrity is extraordinary and has influenced others in the industry. Leung's professionalism was also revealed through his numerous works such as Infernal Affairs I (2002). With his recent international success, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, his recognition is glowing in the West and non-Asian countries and this page is for foreign fanatics to understand the life of Tony Leung and his local success. By tracing the significance of his career, we would understand how has Tony Leung evolved as a celebrity over time.

Tony Leung's recent portrait


Tony Leung is an actor and singer. He is considered to be one of the most successful and internationally well-known actors. He was described as a quiet and reserved boy during his childhood due to growing up in a troubled family. However, he credits his childhood experience as laying the foundation of his attraction to acting and the ability to express himself to his roles[1]. He attended private school until he was 15 when his family was facing financial difficulties causing him to drop out. He worked a variety of different jobs until he met future filmmaker, Stephen Chow, that gave Leung a clear path of his future. After passing all the training courses, he became a professional actor in 1982.

After spending eight years on Television Broadcast (TVB), Leung left the network to focus on his film career. The first film role he landed was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 drama A City of Sadness, which won the Venice Gold Lion that same year. From there, Leung would frequently collaborate with another celebrated filmmaker and director, Wong Kar-Wai, with roles in films such as Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood of Love (2000), and The Grandmaster (2013). Leung received great acclaim for his performance In the Mood of Love and he won a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival[2]. His acting ability gained admiration from a couple of Hollywood movie stars, Brad Pitt and Robert De Niro, leading him to being recognized as one of his generation's finest[3].

Tony Leung had the chance to break into Hollywood, with his first attempt in the 90s. However, he refused to take on roles that degrade his image in China or reinforce Asian Stereotypes. However, films such as Inferno Affair and Hero are amongst his more prominently recognized films in North America. Ultimately, Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) would his first Hollywood film role, in which he was cast as Wenwu, the father of Shang Chi's and a villainous antagonist.

Leung married his longtime girlfriend, Carina Lau, in Bhutan in 2008. They have no children and they just celebrated their 13th anniversary.

A young Tony Leung in his early 20s.

Life roles

Childhood photograph of Leung (1960s)

The story of Tony Leung’s life is very much like a Tony Leung movie. Tony Leung was born in Hong Kong to a family of Taishan, Guangdong ancestry 1962, June 27th[4]. When Leung was very young, his father was a gambler addict and left his family, leaving only his siblings and mother. He grew up in a poor and broken family who dropped out of school to help his uncle to deliver groceries[5]. That part of his tragic childhood and abandonment made Leung into a private, reclusive person. He felt shameful and suppressed whenever fatherhood was brought up in the conversation with his friends. However, the suppressed feeling disappeared when his mother brought him to watch Hollywood movies. Stephen Chow suggested Leung to audition for Television Broadcasts Limited acting school. He learned the discipline of acting and kung fu that eventually allowed him to direct his anger and fear into his characters.

Prior to his movie career in the 1980s, he acted in comedy television series such as The Duke of Mount Deer and New Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre[6]. He quickly became a renowned actor and was named as one of "TVB's Five Tigers" along with Andy Lau, Michael Miu, Kent Wong, and Felix Wong[7]. As a teenager, he often talked to himself to a mirror and rarely to people and he channeled the method into his acting, in which the mirror represents his movie character. According to GQ entertainment, in Chungking Express, Leung spent three minutes talking to a bar of soap, a stuffy cat, and a shift he left on the floor. He would talk to them like they were friends who needed to be cheered up and making jokes about their weight and cleanliness - a performance that left an inaudible impression on Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel-Cretton.

TVB's Five Tigers. From Left to Right. Felix Wong, Andy Lau, Kent Wong, Tony Leung, Michael Miu.

Screen roles

There are many powerful celebrities in Hong Kong, but when it comes to movie stars, the first pile of celebrities is Tony Leung, Chun Yun-Fat, etc. They are handsome and their screen roles are also beloved by the audience. Leung’s international reputation derives from his leading roles in a diverse corpus of films. Despite the majority of his career playing as a protagonist, there is one screen role that taught him about wisdom and chemistry. In The Grandmaster, reveals he seldom talks to Wong Kar-Wai despite their long working relationship. Through his role as a protagonist (Ip Man), he draws the comparison between his relationship with Wong and the movie characters’ Ip Man and Gong Er that they do not need to talk, but to gesture and know what each other wants[8]. Verbal communication perhaps is not the only way to understand a person’s character and needs, Leung learns that studying and observing will do. Additionally, his screen role as the grandmaster allows him to revisit Chinese heritage and gain a good understanding of the basic philosophy of martial arts, then he would utilize it in his other roles that require martial arts.

Director Wong Kar-Wai (left) and Tony Leung (right) attending the Premiere of The Grandmaster (2013).

In the Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Leung plays a villainous father (Wenwu) to the titular hero. However, there was a conflict that happened prior to accepting the screen role. Originally, he turned down the part of a failed father in the past as it bore resemblance to his own childhood[9]. Leung revealed that playing the role of a failed father would reminisce the traumatic experience of how his father treated him. He emphasized that he would only accept the role if Destin Daniel-Cretton (the director) rewrites Wenwu’s character background. In another interview, Leung revealed his childhood made him distance himself from people and he had learned to find something that he really enjoyed doing whilst he was alone. Therefore, Tony Leung strikes a boundary of selecting and accepting certain screen roles that would not remind him of his traumatic past.

Substantive analysis of the celebrity's profession

A Critical Analysis of Infernal Affairs I (2002)

Infernal Affairs I (2002)[10] is one of Tony Leung's representative works, and the film has also been a great success in Hong Kong cinema. Infernal Affairs I (2002) is a classic police and gangster film that mainly talks about a story between two characters: Yan (acted by Tony Leung), an undercover cop, who secretly crept into the Triad to tip the cops off, and Ming, a Triad member, was asked to become a lurking mole in the police office.[10]

Leung plays a character of an undercover cop who is called Yan in Infernal Affairs (2002)[10]. The character's job has little to do with Leung's real-life persona, as Leung had never been a cop before. In the film, Yan is more like a glib talker since he has to act like a sophisticated gangster. Leung is a well-behaved, polite and modest man in real life, and he doesn't have many scandals. Even though there are numerous differences between Yan and Leung himself, they still have many in common. During an interview, Leung was asked if he could choose to be Yan or Ming again before Infernal Affairs (2002)'s shooting, what would he choose, and Leung said that he would choose Yan again because he thought he was similar to this character [11]. Leung's broken family had made him a man of few words. He also revealed in some interviews that he was barely comfortable disclosing with someone. As an undercover cop, Yan got so much sorrow when he was lurking in the gangdom. Due to his notorious identity, Yan was forced to separate from his ex-girlfriend, and his family was never shown in the film, which left him no one to share his true thoughts with. The underlying reasons behind the absence of disclosure in life differed between Leung and Yan. Still, these two reasons contributed to their withdrawal and scanty of words.

From the social and historical aspects, Infernal Affairs I took place in Hong Kong around the Handover period when Hong Kong people struggled with their identity due to their memories as colonized by Britain and their fear of being controlled by the PRC. It's also worth noting that the theme of Infernal Affair I (2002) is that it tries to reveal how memories from the past cause a crisis of Hong Kong's cultural identity. Leung was in his thirties when the film was being shot, and he must also have experienced the same feeling as the majority of people in Hong Kong during the Handover period. Even though the film conveys a strong message of cultural identity confusion and political ambiguity, Leung stated, "I am just an actor. My interest is in making movies, not politics…"[12]. Leung's claim encouraged that one of the acting professions should be fundamentally apolitical.

For geographical settings, the director of Infernal Affair I (2002) provides the audience with a panoramic view of Hong Kong, where the land is crowded with many other skyscrapers, showing its prosperity and urbanization. The landscape of the overwhelming postmodern metropolis outnumbers the tradition and locality of the city is defined by Marchetti as "non-place" since the ubiquitous skyscrapers can barely represent Hong Kong's cultural connotation. Leung grew up in Hong Kong, and he witnessed the change of Hong Kong from the 1960s to now. It's unclear where Leung used to live exactly during his childhood. Still, one can predict that the growing environment of Leung consisted of Hong Kong local elements like neon signs. However, the news reported that Leung now owns property in Repulse Bay, one of Hong Kong's most expensive neighborhoods, with fabulous ocean and mountain views. [13] The life experience of Leung provides him with different perspectives on the landscape.

Screenshot scene of Infernal Affairs I (2002). Leung played Ming (on the right). This urbanized city in the background is where Leung was born and lived.

Tony Leung Chiu-wai is one of Asia's most successful and internationally recognized actors, and was named as "Small Tiger" among the Five Tiger Generals of TVB. He has won many international acting prizes, including the Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actor for his performance in Wong Kar-wai's film In the Mood for Love [14]. He was named by CNN as one of "Asia's 25 Greatest Actors of All Time". For full list of awards please check here.

Tony Leung's Awards
Year Award Category Nominated Work Result
1998 Hong Kong Film Awards Best Supporting Actor My Heart is That Eternal Rose Won
1995 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards Best Actor Chungking Express Won
1998 Golden Horse Film Festival Best Actor Happy Together Won
1999 Cannes Film Festival Best Actor The Longest Nite Won
2002 Golden Horse Awards Best Actor Infernal Affairs Won
2003 Golden Bauhinia Awards Best Actor Infernal Affairs Won
2004 Golden Bauhinia Awards Best Actor 2046 Won
2005 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards Best Actor 2046 Won
2007 Golden Horse Awards Best Actor Lust, Caution Won
2008 Asian Film Awards Best Actor Lust, Caution Won
2013 Hong Kong Film Directors' Guild Best Actor The Grandmaster Won
Contribution to Cinema, Film Culture, and Beyond

Speaking of Leung’s acting, a U.K. journalist had commented that “When it comes to standing still and giving a dramatic performance, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is practically the only name on the list.” Tony Leung was famous for his facial expressions, and he could convey numerous emotions and messages through his eyes. For instance, in Infernal Affairs (2002), when Yan (acted by Tony Leung) witnessed the death of his supervisor, he understood that one of his real friends was gone and his true identity might never be revealed. However, he had to swallow his tear in front of other gangsters due to his unfinished mission as a cop. The close-up shot presents Leung’s complicated facial expression: he was overwhelmed by the death of his superior, but he can not reveal his sadness and despair. One can tell that Yan is sad but the gangsters around had no clue on the relationship between Yan and this dead cop.

Yan (played by Tony Leung) witnessed the death of his superior

Leung uses a range of facial expressions best discerned in close-up or medium shot, limited or unhurried body movement when acting in dramatic roles. Leung’s dramatic style depends much on facial expressions, which contribute to ambiguity in reception. His acting style and the narratives built around his characters endow him with the degree of ambiguity that facilitates his reception in local and transnational venues. Moreover, this ambiguity contributes to Leung’s cosmopolitan appeal, as it helps unfix him from specific cultural foundations.

It's also worth mentioning that when shooting Infernal Affairs I (2002), Leung was given the freedom to make changes to the character and the script; he changed several scenes, dispensing with a cliched "Let's drop our guns and duke it out" ending in favor of something more simple and elegiac. "I wanted to take a different approach". [15] When Leung immersed himself into the character setting, he believed that he can generate more accurate lines, emotions and actions that better fit with the role's setting.

In his acting career, Leung has also played gay characters, such as Lai Yiu-Fai in Happy Together (1997) and Albert in Gorgeous (1999). Even though Leung identifies himself as straight, he still delivered strong performances that parallel the acting in romance and comedy production when acting in gay roles. Leung once mentioned in an interview that “I’m not gay, so it was hard to get into that character. I have to find a way to get into that, so I treat him as a girl, don’t treat him as a man. I think it’s just like a relationship, no matter whether it’s a man or a woman”, arguing that “performance of homosexuality can be undertaken according to the same acting protocols as the performance of heterosexuality” .[12] Leung's thorough study of scripts and characters equipped him superb acting skills, like he mentioned before "Once I'm committed to a role, I will go very deep into it, even when I'm not at work," he says. "I'll keep on studying the script, maybe 40 or 50 times. I might call a scriptwriter at three in the morning to say I've thought of something new". [15]It further suggests Leung’s profession in acting — he is not playing a character but to be one.

Unlike other celebrities, Leung spent most of his time solely on acting and immersing himself in the filmdom. Due to his modesty, hardworking and extraordinary acting skills, Leung won numerous awards in his cinematic field. Tony Leung has won eight Hong Kong Film Awards, three Golden Horse Awards, and he was the second Chinese to win the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Winning the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival had brought Leung’s reputation to a global level, and he was undoubtedly an international superstar. News and Articles about Leung in English-language entertainment platforms inevitably define him analogously to classical American stars: he becomes “the Asian Clark Gable,” “the Humphrey Bogart of Chinese cinema” or “Hong Kong’s answer to Johnny Depp".[12] However, Leung’s international popularity can also be attributed to his heritage of ethnicity as an Asian — he became an unthreatening other and object of fantasy. While western viewers can enjoy Leung’s mild exoticism, his beauty can also easily be recuperable within the Hollywood-derived frameworks of star appeal. Leung’s so-called transfigured version of a white Hollywood star reported by the English media thus contributes to his successful iconicity worldwide.

Key Societal, Moral, and Political Forces that Influenced Leung's Career
Societal and Moral Forces

When people hear the name Tony Leung, they might be reminded of one film Lust, Caution (2007). In addition to the success of the film, the sex scenes in the film were also attracting attention of audiences for so many years. For audiences from mainland, the sex scenes was cut due to the strict censorships and different kinds of rumors and guess were spread like the coveting to the forbidden fruit. On working with Tony, Tang Wei praised Leung as a “very professional actor” and that he “didn’t use a body double,” seeming to imply that the explicit love scenes in the film were real, rather than the elaborately arranged camera angles[16]. The scenes were performed in a private studio, with the presence of only Ang Lee and the cameraman.

After picking up the best actor award at the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong, Leung stated that “Our work is only to express our roles and I don’t think that an actor should be blacklisted because of this.” Leung had always been quite transparent about his mental state during the film’s production. He has mentioned that Lust, Caution (2007) has brought him a lot of shadows , and it has brought him insurmountable psychological obstacles so far. Indeed, this film was one of the most emotionally-taxing films that he has ever done. What’s more, the director Ang Lee had to ask Leung’s wife to convince Leung to continue finishing the film[16]. Even though this film does not affect Leung’s career or reputation badly, it’s still a film that make Leung famous in an unusual way.

Political Forces

One controversial work that Leung got involved in would be Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), and Leung acts as Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu, but another name, Fu Manchu, knows this character. Fu Manchu was a character created by British author Sax Rohmer in 1912 and is widely considered racist. The screen image of Fu Manchu is described as a typical stereotype of westerners on Chinese people “with Shakespearean eyebrows, Satan’s face, long eyes, thin beard, and shining green light,” “with a dark heart, he is the evilest person in the world.” The subtle role of “Mandarin” is a collection of Western prejudices and demonized imaginations of Chinese people for a century. Therefore, Westerners’ impression of “Fu Manchu” has long been an insidious and cunning “yellow peril”[17]. The film raised a heated discussion in China, especially when Tony Leung would play such a controversial character. Chinese netizens were very sensitive to Tony Leung’s identity as being a Hong Kong native considering the unsolved tension between Hong Kong and the mainland. Mainland audiences’ discontent was also triggered when the trailer was released [17]. However, Leung has never publicly spoken on this issue, but he had notified Walt Disney Studios of the controversy and he was being very careful and cautious about the issue. Philip Yung, who worked with Leung in a new film had talked with the actor about this, and stressed that he did not think Leung's Marvel role would "insult China".[17] "I think this is not fair on Tony Leung," Yung said, "I think there's a heavy herd mentality in society, and we have to be careful". Although Leung indicated that he would be apolitical, his reputation was still affected without his control.

Fu Manchu's image

Reception of the celebrity

Tony Leung is considered by many to be the most acclaimed contemporary actor in Hong Kong and Greater China. His works on Chungking Express, Happy Together, and In the Mood of Love gained widespread popularity in the Asia region. Local and foreign fans speak very highly of Tony Leung and often classify him as “Legend.” The persona of Tony Leung interests many of his fans and they perceive Leung as a terribly reserved and quiet person[18]. He has a nonchalant attitude towards his fame and talent. You would not catch him bragging about his success and the number of awards he won. Fans also describe him as a man of little words, but he is a man with massive impact and a humble being. He is simply there to exist, to live a simple life. His character is what makes fans fall in love with him regardless of the generation of his fans.

The poster of Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021).

He made his Hollywood debut in 2021, and he chalked that long delay up to ‘fate’ but either way that meant that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a first time a broader American audience might get a taste of extraordinary Hong Kong cinema lovers had enjoyed for decades. However, Leung did not seem to require the attention of the English-language as many foreign movie maniacs had heard of his name before whether the theatre played foreign cult classic movies or not. Western fans of Leung cited his romantic collaborations with director Wong Kar-Wai such as In the Mood of Love and Chungking Express as where they first discovered[19]. In an interview with Shang-Chi’s director, Destin Daniel-Cretton, he said, “I did feel this intense pressure of trying to pitch this movie in the right way.” It shows that Cretton shows great respect for Leung and one bad idea might potentially lure Tony Leung away from the film in which he hoped it would not happen. With the modern age of social media and internet platforms, it is relatively easy to capture foreign fan reactions once he was casted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). On Reddit, there is a fan discussion on the film and many positive feedbacks on the character and Tony Leung; comments such as “Two Words, TONY LEUNG” and “Tony Leung stole the freaking show, his acting was on another level” prove to be a phenomenal success. In an ideal world, Leung's successful foray into Hollywood and the MCU will spark some appreciation for his work among wider western audiences.

Tony Leung holding hands with Carina Lau (Left) and Maggie Cheung (Right)

There are many gossips that are discussed in Tony Leung’s personal life. One of the hot topics is a photo that displays Tony Leung holding one hand with his girlfriend, Carina Lau, and “confidante” Maggie Cheung with his other hand[20]. This strikes many conversations within the entertainment industry of who would Leung end up with. Evidently, Leung married Lau eventually. Despite not enclosing the secret behind his marriage, opinions were circulated among fans and they were disappointed Maggie Cheung was not the lucky one. Leung had grown intimately with Cheung in the late 90s and their chemistry on set was excellent. Fans expected them to end up together because their partnership was often portrayed as a romantic affair. Thus, fans expected their relationship would mimic their screen roles from movies.

Critical literature review

In Mark Gallagher’s “Hero and Tony Leung’s polysemic masculinity”, Gallagher argues that Tony Leung’s vast range in genres and the sheer breadth of his roles has allowed Leung to amass the global following he has today. From critically acclaimed globally distributed films, to more niche, auteur centered indie films turned cult classics, Leung has been able to demonstrate his wide range as an actor, portraying a litany of different characters. Such notoriety also makes Leung subject to both political and social commentary, especially in relation to his contrasting portrayals of masculinity. Of note, Leung’s portrayals of queer characters have often been the subject of critical discussion. In particular, his character in Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together, a man in a gay relationship with the star actor Leslie Cheung, has been closely scrutinized by viewers. However, Leung has been able to skirt possible criticism for his affinity for portraying queer characters as the narrative edge of films such as Happy Together effectively dissociate his “star-body” from his on-screen character, allowing Leung to maintain his global stardom. Understanding Leung as both a performer and a film star can provide unique insight into his global success. Both as a star, a subject of the audience’s various commentaries, and as a performer, playing with liminality, Tony Leung’s performance directs attention beyond action stars to deeper, romantic male roles in Chinese films. Again, Leung’s incredible range as an actor is demonstrated. It is worth mentioning here that Leung’s stardom did not arise overnight, but as the result of a generation of actors who negotiated a long road to stardom through long term, on-the-job training. As a result, Tony Leung continues to develop a flexibility in the characters he plays, in his broad and diverse filmography. In the matter of timing, however, it is worth noting that Leung’s fame came at a critical time in Hong Kong’s film industry history, especially in his star role in 2002 cult classic Infernal Affairs by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, as this film closely followed the 1997 decline in Hong Kong cinema.[21][22][23][24][25]

Critical debates

Much of the critical discourse surrounding Tony Leung argues that the magnitude of his worldwide stardom is a significant part of his persona building. Bringing a wide range of characters to life on screen, Leung’s stardom is most often attributed to his ability to expertly portray characters from diverse backgrounds. However, assuming that Leung’s abilities are the distinguishing factor in his fame is probably quite limiting, as the auteurship of the filmmakers themselves has more often than not been a key decider in the films’ successes. Moreover, the temporal nature of Leung’s films is understood in the unique timeline of Hong Kong cinema history.  An example of such a film, as mentioned above, is the 2002 cult classic Infernal Affairs by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. Furthermore, he can be understood as both political and apolitical, and discussions are often interested in the intersection of star and performer in defining his unique stardom. Notably, such discussions may be limited by attempting to position Leung on certain conceptual spectrums, as existing on both ends to various degrees. More accurately, Leung's celebrity can be viewed as existing in a unique between-space, between star and performer, between political and apolitical, for example.


In this Wiki page, we cover the important life role and screen role that Tony Leung has involved and there are many aspects of his method acting that are mostly derived from his troubled past as a quiet and timid boy. With the help of his mother and Stephen Chow, Leung was able to enter the industry. In addition to his hardwork and talent, they allowed him to go beyond distance and become one of the most successful international film stars. We also get to understand how overseas fans perceived him when he stepped onto Hollywood and how fans reacted when he appeared at a global cinema. We also critically analyzed one of Leung’s major works Infernal Affairs I (2002). By comparing and contrasting Leung and the character Yan, we concluded that there are several similarities and differences between them which in turn elicited important messages of Leung’s career and life. By reading this Wiki page, readers can understand how Leung’s family, acting attainment and his artisan spirit contributed to his career success and global reputations. This Wiki page also provides an insight into how societal, moral and political forces affect Leung’s career.


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UBC Asian Centre, Bell Shrine, Winter 2013.JPG
This resource was created by Course:ASIA321.