The new “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” teaser trailer was released this week and it is narrated by a legend of Hong Kong cinema. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung is playing Wemwu, a new character created for this film by Marvel Studios and the father of Shang-Chi, the film’s hero. Among the most famous actors in Asia, the trailer marked the first time many longtime fans heard Leung speaking in English.
The fifty-eight-year-old actor is an alum of classic films by John Woo, Kar-Wai Wong and Ang Lee. He’s taken home a “Best Actor” award at the Cannes Film Festival, three times at the Golden Horse Film Festival, and an impressive five times at the Hong Kong Film Awards. In 2004 The Guardian compared him to Johnny Depp and since then he’s been referred to as Asia’s answer to Clark Gable. The new Marvel Studios film – due out on September 3 – will be the actor’s Hollywood debut.
A Legendary Career
Leung starred in television and films through the 80s, but it was in the early 90s that the actor began to take on some of his most significant roles. In 1990 he played the lead in John Woo’s “Bullet in the Head.” It was a critical success for both but it was his next film with the director that solidified the actor’s stardom.
“Hard Boiled” is widely considered among the director’s finest works, especially among Western critics. The last of Woo’s classic Hong Kong period before a series of American films, it saw Leung in an iconic performance as an undercover cop posing as a triad assassin. This performance opposite actor Chow Yun Fat, sets the bar for Leung as a cool and dangerous heartthrob.
Between those two action roles, Leung would appear in “Days of Being Wild” directed by auteur Kar-Wai Wong. The period piece about Hong Kong and the Philippines of the early sixties was the first of six collaborations with the director over fifteen years – perhaps Leung’s most important partnership. These roles showed off the actor’s versatility as a romantic lead, from the stoic cop of the much-acclaimed “Chung King Express” to the cuckolded husband of “In the Mood for Love.”
If Leung’s work with Wong demonstrated the actor’s range, the director’s 1997 film “Happy Together” shows just how far. The controversial film was about two gay expatriates of Hong Kong in Buenos Ares in a deteriorating, problematic relationship. Leung played half of that relationship opposite singer Leslie Cheung before the queer Hong Kong icon’s tragic suicide in 2003. The film remains one of Wong’s most effecting and intense – which is really saying something.
In a career of accomplishments, Leung wasn’t done yet. The actor starred again as an undercover cop infiltrating the triads in 2002’s “Infernal Affairs,” a star-studded Hong Kong film with reaching influence. It would later be remade by Martin Scorcese as “The Departed,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the Leung-equivalent role.
Leung is not only an actor but an accomplished musician. As a singer, Leung has released twelve albums. His duet with costar Andy Lau in the theme song for “Infernal Affairs” won for “Best Original Song” at the 22nd Hong Kong Film Awards.
In 2008 Leung married his longtime romantic partner and costar Carina Lau. The two had been in films together since the 80s, including “Days of Being Wild,” during the filming of which Lau was abducted and forced to pose nude. The couple is among the most important of Hong Kong cinema – Wong even directed their wedding ceremony – but have not been without drama. Rumors of a past love triangle with Leung’s “In the Mood For Love” costar Maggie Cheung (who is retired from acting) have occasionally dogged the couple in the past.
The New Mandarin
While Wemwu is a new character invented for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the persona of the Mandarin is not. The supervillain of the comics dates back to the early 60s and has often showed up as an Iron Man villain. Ben Kingsley supposedly played the character in “Iron Man 3” but his character was revealed to be only an actor performing as the Mandarin. “All Hail the King,” a 2014 short film “one-shot” produced by Marvel and staring Kingsley revealed that there was in fact a real Mandarin, who was fairly unhappy about the performance, although the character was never seen onscreen.
While much remains to be seen about how Wemwu will be portrayed in the film (and his exact relationship to the Mandarin persona) it does seem that the character will be Shang-Chi’s father – a role in the comics originally filled by Fu Manchu. The Sax Rohmer character at the time was licensed to appear in Marvel comics and the relationship was subsequently downplayed or ignored. That character has been controversial and criticized for being racist as has the Mandarin, who several writers have tried to reimagine comics over the years.