Eye of the Tiger | April Zuo
Spoiler Warning - This article contains spoilers for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”
Tony Leung, or Leung Chiu-wai, winner of many international acting prizes and one of Asia’s most successful and internationally recognized actors, has just made his Hollywood debut as the most attractive character in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”. His performance in this film as its main antagonist, Xu Wenwu, launched him into the spotlight amongst younger western audiences and brought in an influx of well deserved and long overdue recognition. So to celebrate, it is time to take a look at his path to success and how his ability to act with his eyes brought him to the top.
Born June 27, 1962 in Hong Kong, Leung officially took his first step into the world of acting in 1982 at 20 years old. He began by playing several minor roles for the Hong Kong TV broadcasting company, the Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), before being promoted into lead roles in series like “The Duke of Mount Deer” in 1984. These performances would earn him a place among the “Five Tiger Generals of TVB” — a group of five of the most popular young leading male actors in Hong Kong's 1980s television — and the nickname “Small Tiger.”
From there, he went on to star in a number of critically acclaimed films, many of which were in collaboration with director Wong Kar-wai. Some of his best works include “Chungking Express” (1994) and “In the Mood for Love” (2000), with the latter awarding him Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Throughout his career, Leung has also received a whopping five Hong Kong Film Awards for best actor.
But what exactly makes him so popular? The obvious answer is his dashing good looks, but the less obvious one, and paradoxically the most well known one, is his eyes. After all, he is known throughout Asia as “the man who can speak with his eyes”.
Even in the early stages of his career, Leung was incredibly expressive with his eyes, and, as he matured as an actor, each look and sidelong glance only grew more powerful. Despite the many, many examples of this talent, one of the most notable is his first internationally acclaimed role in “City of Sadness” (1989). In the movie, Leung portrays a deaf and mute character, thus forcing him to communicate with his eyes. The love his character felt could be seen in a gaze lingering a moment too long, despair in a glazed stare, as if into nothingness, and maturity in the way his eyes no longer flitted around the room as he spoke, instead remaining steady and focused.
Then, as he grew further into his career, Leung took on a very natural style of acting, such as in “In the Mood for Love”. In this film, his eyes are less directly expressive and instead are secretive and ambiguous. There are scenes where they roam and then fix on a seemingly arbitrary point. There are scenes where they look like they will tear up but never do. They portray the character’s conflict brilliantly yet subtly, in a way that obvious expression cannot.
And, of course, his eyes in “Shang-Chi”. There are three stages to them: intensity, love, and desperation.
In the beginning, as a man determined to unite the world under his rule, Wenwu’s eyes were focused and intense, always looking forward with an unwavering resolve. The audience sees his desires in the way he looks right past the enemy soldiers, as if into the heart of the city itself, before unleashing the ten rings upon the army. It shows that he is confident, even arrogant, and knows that common foot soldiers did not stand a chance against him.
We see this same look during his first fight with his eventual wife, Ying Li, but throughout the fight, we also see it change. His eyes become softer, and as the fight morphs into a dance, they are drawn to her face instead of her movements, and the audience knows that Wenwu has fallen for Ta Lo’s guardian.
But with Ying Li’s death, this look disappears, and it is replaced by one similar to the first, yet with an immediate undertone of sadness and loss. It grows gradually, as his desperate mission to save his wife continues and eventually culminates in his fight with Shang Chi. It’s the first time we see him direct a gaze at his son without an air of haughty superiority. He is looking straight into Shang Chi’s eyes, not down on them. At that point, he is able to gain the audience’s sympathy, because Wenwu is no longer just a man driven crazy by grief, but one who loves his family deeply and, as Leung himself said, “[doesn’t] know how to love himself.”
Many have said “the eyes are the windows to the soul”, and many more have questioned its authenticity, claiming that you cannot tell much about a man from his face. But whenever Tony Leung Chiu-wai appears on screen, I don’t think we have a choice but to put full faith into that old saying.