time warp

That time Tony Leung went totally gay in this queer cinema classic

Photo Credit: The Criterion Channel

Celebrating his 60th birthday today is the Hong Kong-born screen legend Tony Leung, one of international cinema’s finest actors. And we do mean fine—just look at him!

Leung has been acting steadily since the early ’80s, and is widely considered to be one of China’s most celebrated performers. With timeless good looks and an alluring screen presence, he’s headlined a number of stone-cold classics, including John Woo’s influential action epic Hard Boiled and Ang Lee’s searing Lust, Caution. Most recently, Leung leaned into his “daddy” appeal to play Xu Wenwu, the fearsome father and primary antagonist of Marvel’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings.

But the actor’s most lauded work over the years has been with auteur filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. In many ways, Leung has been the director’s muse throughout their careers, delivering astounding work in iconic films like Chungking Express and In The Mood For Love, one of the sexiest movies ever made, which earned the star the Best Actor honor at the Cannes Film Festival.

Photo Credit: “Happy Together,” The Criterion Channel

For our purposes, notable among Leung and Kar-wai’s many collaborations is the 1997 drama, Happy Together, often heralded as a landmark in the New Queer Cinema movement. The film concerns itself with the tumultuous, on-again-off-again romance of two gay Chinese men, Lai (Leung) and Ho (Leslie Cheung), who visit Argentina together and then find themselves stuck there without the money to fly home, forced to take work wherever they can get it.

Released just weeks before the United Kingdom ended its colonial ruling of Hong Kong, Happy Together fashions itself as a metaphor for a changing time with an uncertain future, but its focus on two gay protagonists means it still stands out as rare example of a queer narrative to come out of China.

Related: One of China’s most famous novels has been remade into a steamy gay Taiwanese film

Around its debut, Kar-wai was reticent to label it a “gay film,” saying, “It’s more like a story about human relationships and somehow the two characters involved are both men.” Even still, there’s no denying that the movie is uniquely informed by the gay relationship at its core, and the thoughtful approach to their connection distinguishes it as one of the first Hong Kong cinema features to treat its queer characters as something more than a punchline.

Though he’s straight, Leung is characteristically sensitive and nuanced in his portrayal of Lai, leading viewers through the character’s emotional rollercoaster. And, again, the man is just stunning to watch; Happy Together is a feast for the eyes, but never more than when it lingers on Leung’s beautiful face, often subtly telegraphing a well of emotion bubbling just under the surface.

Photo Credit: “Happy Together,” The Criterion Channel

And there’s plenty else to enjoy in the film, including an early, intimate sex scene shot in black and white that showcases the intense passion between Lai and Ho. Years later, their turbulent love affair is one that’s hard to shake.

In celebration of Tony Leung’s 60th, there’s no better time to check out this gorgeous, moody milestone of queer film history.

Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together is streaming now on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel.