In the swooningly beautiful 1990 film Days of Being Wild , Tony Leung Chiu-wai gets one of the greatest entrances – and exits – ever accorded an actor in a single movie. Remarkably, the entrance and the exit are the same scene. In the movie’s final moments, the seminal writer-director Wong Kar-wai turns the camera on a character we haven’t met yet: a handsome young card sharp in a low-ceilinged flat, preparing for a night on the town. Who this man is and how he relates to the other characters in this drifty 60s Hong Kong roundelay is a mystery. Still, you can tell a lot about him just from the way he buffs his nails, runs a comb through his hair and casually slips a deck into his pocket. He’s all slippery elegance and wily charm, someone whose mere presence renders words superfluous. He’s Tony Leung Chiu-wai, in other words – not to be confused with Tony Leung Ka-fai, the other beloved icon of Hong Kong cinema . These are the [performances] I can’t imagine his career without, the ones in which this famed heartthrob, whether luxuriating in whorls of cigarette smoke or whispering a sacred secret, becomes as much the desirer as the desired Justin Chang, on Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046 That quietly heart-stopping introduction/farewell marked the start of something extraordinary. After Days of Being Wild , Wong and Leung went on to make six more features together, a hopefully unfinished collaboration that cemented them both as world-cinema titans. (Many of them are available in Criterion Collection’s lavish Wong Kar-wai box set, which was released earlier this year .) But if Leung has been Wong’s most steadfast on-screen muse, over the past 40 years he’s racked up credits with no shortage of other noteworthy filmmakers, including Hou Hsiao-hsien, John Woo, Ang Lee , Zhang Yimou and Tran Anh Hung. He’s played husbands and lovers, gangsters and cops, dynastic warlords and kung fu masters, heroes and villains. He’s become a sex symbol, a style icon and one of the world’s biggest movie stars – all without ever appearing in a Hollywood movie . The 6 most anticipated new Hong Kong films of 2021 Until now. Leung is getting a lot of attention for his work in the new Marvel superhero epic Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings . As Shang-Chi’s estranged father and one of Marvel’s more notorious supervillains, the Mandarin, Leung gives a playful, brooding and ultimately devastating performance that’s even more resonant – emotionally, aesthetically, iconographically – if you’ve seen some of his others. Here is my extremely non-definitive list of 12 all-time great Leung films and performances, presented in no particular order and as a series of double bills. It omits some of my personal favourites and perhaps some of yours. But for those encountering Leung for the first time in Shang-Chi and eager to see more, all of these should be considered essential viewing. How Hong Kong’s film industry got so big – and why it fell into decline Ashes of Time (1994) and Hero (2002) As it happens, both Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Tony Leung Ka-fai appeared in Wong’s Ashes of Time , a shimmering, enigmatic swordplay drama that was underappreciated in its initial mid-90s tour of festivals and art-house theatres. The significantly reworked Ashes of Time Redux was released in 2008. While neither Ashes nor Zhang Yimou’s ravishing martial-arts epic Hero features Leung (Chiu-wai) at his deepest, they are tributes to his matinee-idol magnetism and his ability to slip effortlessly into period roles, especially if there’s radiantly windswept hair involved. Just watch him do floor calligraphy in Hero and tell me you don’t want to see the rest. Why Wong Kar-wai’s 5 least-acclaimed films are still worth watching A City of Sadness (1989) and Flowers of Shanghai (1998) The revered Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien likes to film in unbroken, distanced long takes with minimal close-ups – not a style exactly conducive to star turns. All the more remarkable, then, that in these two masterpieces, Hou taps into Leung’s gift for expressing emotional volumes with nary a word. In A City of Sadness , Leung plays a photographer whose family is swept up in the White Terror violence that convulsed Taiwan from 1949 to 1987. In Flowers of Shanghai , he’s a regular visitor at one of that city’s 19th century brothels, or “flower houses”. Leung vanishes seamlessly into these lost worlds, but even a camera this restrained can’t help but love him. Is Johnnie To the best Hong Kong director the world has never heard of? Chungking Express (1994) and Infernal Affairs (2002) A cop comedy and a cop drama par excellence. In Wong’s joyous diptych Chungking Express , Leung plays a lovelorn police officer who’s plainly terrible at detecting things, like the fact that the woman of his dreams ( revered Canto-pop diva Faye Wong ) is secretly raiding and redesigning his apartment when he’s out, in the mother of all romantic pranks. (The movie, a personal all-time favourite, also offers delightful proof that Leung has more chemistry with stuffed animals than some actors can manage with each other.) He’s smarter and sadder as a cop who goes deep undercover (opposite superstar Andy Lau’s crook on in the inside ) in Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s tense and soulful gangster thriller Infernal Affairs , which Martin Scorsese famously remade, to entertaining but lesser effect, as The Departed . How Sars set the tone for Infernal Affairs, the movie that ‘saved Hong Kong cinema’ Happy Together (1997) and Lust, Caution (2007) Love and lust become corrosive forces in both Wong’s Happy Together , which stars Leung and Leslie Cheung as a gay couple unhappily adrift in Buenos Aires, and Ang Lee’s World War II-era spy drama Lust, Caution , in which Leung plays a corrupt bureaucrat locked in a slowly riveting tango of desire with a femme fatale (Tang Wei). These two doomed romances could scarcely be more antithetical: Happy Together pulses with heat even at its saddest, while Lust, Caution , for all its controversy-stirring acres of bared flesh, has a chilly anti-eroticism. Quite a contrast, too, between Leung’s aching vulnerability in the former and his cruelly calculating reserve in the latter. Happy Together, and five more Hong Kong LGBTQ+ films you need to see Red Cliff (2008-09) and The Grandmaster (2013) Leung appeared in several early John Woo classics, including Bullet in the Head and Hard-Boiled , but Red Cliff , Woo’s magnificent two-part adaptation of the 14th century Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms , might be their towering achievement. Even when heavily armoured and surrounded by a cast of thousands, Leung holds the screen above all others, conveying tactical genius, emotional ardour and a sly rapport with his main co-star, Takeshi Kaneshiro. He gives a similar wow of a performance as a very different kind of fighter, the legendary Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s mentor , in The Grandmaster , Wong’s dizzyingly kinetic plunge into the shadow-world of China’s greatest martial artists. Meet Tony Leung’s wife, Carina Lau, the Hong Kong star still living large In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2005) One of the pleasures of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is that it’s fully aware of what a star it has in Leung and even seems to pay tribute to him, and to his work in these two remarkable Wong films in particular. With In the Mood for Love , he plays a 1960s writer who falls for his across-the-hall neighbour ( the great Maggie Cheung ); in 2046 , he plays that same man (or does he?), a chivalrous soul turned unrepentant cad, forever ruined by the memory of his great, lost love. How In the Mood for Love became a modern masterpiece – 20 years on I don’t know if these are Leung’s two greatest performances, but they are the ones I can’t imagine his career without, the ones in which this famed heartthrob, whether luxuriating in whorls of cigarette smoke or whispering a sacred secret, becomes as much the desirer as the desired, an avatar of obsessive longing to rival James Stewart in Vertigo . Want more stories like this? Sign up here. Follow STYLE on Facebook , Instagram , YouTube and Twitter .