Tony Leung Chiu Wai is one of the most recognizable Asian actors in the world, chiefly through his collaborations with a number of master filmmakers, including Ang Lee, Hou Hsiao Hsen, John Woo and Wong Kar Wai. Leung, who also has a career as a pop singer, has been praised by audiences and critics for his ability to wonderfully portray a plethora of different roles, a skill stressed by the fact that he can fluently speak Cantonese, English and Spanish.
He is currently one of the most sought-out performers in East Asia and is widely considered the best native Hong Kong actor of his generation. Here is a list of his best movies, in chronological order.
1. A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao Hsen, 1989)
The script depicts the experiences of the Lin family during the upheaval that occurred after 1945, when Japanese forces withdrew from Taiwan after 51 years, until 1949 and the division of Taiwan from China.
Tony Leung plays the youngest brother of the family, who avoided recruitment to the army because he was deaf and blind due to a childhood accident. However, despite his inability, he is the most intelligent and the only one truly aware of the political situation, thus resulting in his association with anti-government activists.
Leung’s character represents Taiwan’s political situation at the time, as he ends up as a prey of the circumstances, despite his fierce struggle to become an independent entity. His unsentimental performance was one of the film’s biggest assets as he delivered, in an astonishing fashion, a quite demanding role as a handicapped individual who has to portray a number of sentiments.
2. Hard Boiled (John Woo, 1992)
Inspector “Tequila” Yuen is a hardcore cop set to arrest an arms dealer, and he is willing to resort to extreme measures in order to do so. Leung plays Alan, an undercover cop who has to betray his boss that introduced him to the criminal underworld of Hong Kong, in order to assist Yuen.
He plays a melancholy character unable to create even a notion of a normal life due to his double identity, and he subsequently suffers from ethical dilemmas due to the trust his crime boss has shown him.
Although the actual protagonist is Chow Yun Fat as Yuen, Leung’s role is more demanding and his competence was evident up to the point where he overshadowed Fat, at least artistically.
3. Chungking Express (Wong Kar Wai, 1994)
The script revolves around two police officers who fall in love with two different women. Leung plays Cop 663, who has recently separated from his girlfriend and subsequently meets a peculiar waitress, Fei, who has an obsession with the song “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and Papas and falls in love with him.
Leung was obliged to play a role that depicts the results of Fei’s actions. However, his portrayal of the silent, tough person, who is interested in a woman but is afraid to express his feelings, is wonderful.
His performance earned him the award for Best Leading Actor by the Golden Horse and the Hong Kong Film Awards.
4. Ashes of Time (Wong Kar Wai, 1994)
The film tells the story of Ouyang Feng, who abandoned his house when the woman he loved chose to marry his older brother. Since then he lives in the desert where he works as an intermediate between individuals who seek revenge and potential killers for hire.
Leung plays a master swordsman who is slowly turning blind. He agrees to defend a village from thieves in order to afford to return home and meet his spouse before his eyesight fails completely.
Although Leung was not among the protagonists, he nevertheless performed competently and at the same time, he presented a sample of his skills in action scenes.
5. Cyclo (Ahn Hung Tran, 1994)
The film takes place in Ho Chi Minh City, where an 18-year-old Vietnamese man named Cyclo drives a bike-taxi in order to earn his pay. Eventually the vehicle is stolen and the young man finds himself at the mercy of a gangster-poet, who subsequently leads him into a life of crime. However, he does not realize that the poet has been prostituting his sister.
Leung portrays the pimp-poet, who is torn between love and cruelty, in a devastating contrast. The love that Cyclo’s sister feels for him, despite the fact that he is prostituting her, was one of the first samples of his later roles as an object of lust for many female characters.
6. Happy Together (Wong Kar Wai, 1997)
Lai Yiu-fai and Ho Po Wing are lovers, spending their vacations in Argentina. Eventually, during the trip, Ho abandons Lai and he, not having enough money to return home, is forced to work in a bar as a door attendant, while living in a miniscule room in the back of the establishment.
Ho dates a number of men, until one day he visits Lai, while being physically traumatized. He takes care of him and although he loses his job, he manages to find another one as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant. While there, he meets Chang, a young man who travels around the world.
Tony Leung portrays Lai, a melancholy man who keeps his feelings bottled while he struggles to survive in a foreign country and through an unfair relationship. Additionally, Wai implemented him as the chief narrator in voice-over and he delivered both in that aspect and in his particular role. Furthermore, his portrayal of a gay man instead of his usual character as a Don Juan, proved his ability to act with the same competence in opposite roles.
His performance netted him the Best Actor Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
7. The Longest Nite (Patrick Yau, 1998)
The film is set in Macau, where two rival triad gangs are about to negotiate a truce. However, the attempt is undermined because one of the two leaders, Lung, hears a rumor that the other one, Brother K, has set in motion an attempt against his life. The latter subsequently sends Sam, a corrupt police officer who works for him, to investigate. Nevertheless, Sam’s violent ways create even further upsetting actions.
Leung plays Sam, a heinous character who is in fact a gangster, although he works for the police. His character starts out as a shallow individual, whose only concern is to beat and torture whoever he comes across. However, as the script unfolds, the role gains depth due to Sam’s confusion resulting from the evidence he discovers. Leung portrays both of the aforementioned aspects sublimely.