by Felix Cheong
April is the cruellest month, says American poet T.S. Eliot. How true. How apt, Leslie, that you had timed your death at the beginning of spring, when winter is forgiven and trees turn over new leaves. For beneath Natures green force is often creative destruction.
What had died inside you, what chaos at the heart of you, before you died?
Was there a moment, before the light step off the ledge, when you wondered if you were committing suicide as your self or as Jim Law, the troubled psychiatrist you had portrayed in your last film Inner Senses (2002)? Did you wonder if youd be saved by harness and wires, mattresses below cushioning your body so it would not be broken into blood and bone?
But no. After the vertigo - the horror of not being able to freeze-frame your fall. The finality of not being able to call "cut!" and ask for a retake.
Who were you when you were not acting, Leslie? Whose eyes gazed back at you in the mirror? From reports, it seemed you had to see a psychiatrist because you were having problems sidestepping the role of the psychiatrist after the filming of Inner Senses.
Not knowing where the act ends and the actor begins its a professional hazard isnt it? Remember how Tony Leung was arrested last year for drunk driving and he later claimed he was still in character? Remember how Winona Ryder was hauled off to court for shoplifting and she claimed shed been researching into her character? Remember also how recent Oscar winner Adrien Brody said he couldnt slip out of the sadness even after director Roman Polanski had wrapped up filming for The Pianist?
Thats the nature of the beast. Acting demands that your own nature lock horns with the character you take on, that your body and heart be the raw material, the pivot of your art. Unlike the painter, writer or composer whose creative process finds articulation in a physical form, an actors work is largely internalized. And if youre not strong enough, you run the risk of the part taking over the whole.
Most actors have learned how and when to let it go but not you, Leslie. Perfectionist that you were, you asked for nothing less than to live with the mask till it breathed on your face. And the movies for which youll be remembered suggest you relished the friction of rubbing reel against real.
For instance, if we were to carve out the soul of Yuddy, the character you played like a latter-day James Dean in Days of Being Wild (1991) - which, incidentally, is also the Hong Kong title for Deans seminal film Rebel Without a Cause how much of you would we be able to uncover? Probably most of it since like Yuddy, you were known to be volatile and given to mood swings.
You mustve realized that your screen charisma thrives on this image, and you therefore made career choices based on it: the amoral assassin in Ashes of Times (1994), the deformed lover in The Phantom Lover (1995), the scorned gigolo in Temptress Moon (1997). All laconic and emotionally unpredictable shades and shadows of yourself surely.
A related screen persona: that of the tortured artist, one who dreads making compromises but sometimes resorts to bargaining with the devil to get what he wants. Wasnt this probably how you mustve felt whenever you had to shoot these dreary, corny, made-for-Chinese-New-Year duds like Ninth Happiness (1998)?
Some of this angst about making compromises mustve been assimilated into your role in Farewell My Concubine (1993), as a Chinese opera singer giving in to the Communists during the Cultural Revolution. Some of it mustve also been channeled into Viva Erotica (1996), in which you depict a filmmaker who, against his better judgement, directs a soft porn flick in order to keep his head above water.
More interesting is how, as I see it, some of the roles youd chosen emboldened you into coming out of the closet. Or perhaps youd chosen them precisely so the public could gradually come to accept you as gay. This is where the blurring of lines between film and biography becomes most pronounced.
It began with Farewell My Concubine, in which your huadan (a man assuming a female role in Chinese opera) character falls in love with his opera partner. A year later, you play a composer-producer in the comedy Hes a Woman, Shes a Man (1994), in which your character thinks hes in love with a man, who turns out to be a woman. Though both films touch on homosexuality, the angle of entry is oblique; the tangled relationships are still very much couched in male-female terms.
Its in Wong Kar-Wais Happy Together (1997), still banned from a commercial run in Singapore that you finally play an out-and-out gay man alongside Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. It couldnt have been coincidental that in the same year that this film was released, you finally acknowledged your love affair with Mr. Tong - something you could not reveal up until then. Portraying Po-Wing, an emotionally unstable gay man, mustve given you the freedom and confidence to come clean but it mustve also cut a lot closer to home.
Irish poet W.B. Years once asked: how do we tell the dancer from the dance? To that I should add: how do we tell the actor from the act? Your career, Leslie, has been nothing short of an interesting case study of art gatecrashing into life.
Good night, sweet prince. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.This article was first published in Today on 5th April 2003.
LESLIE CHEUNG KWOK-WING (1956-2003)
Hong Kong Actor and Singer
by Kenneth Lyen
Leslie Cheung will not be attending this years Hong Kong Film Awards where he is nominated for Best Actor in the film Inner Senses. He jumped to his death from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on April Fools Day 2003, apparently because of emotional depression following the separation from his partner. He was only 46 years old.
In this relatively brief life, he managed to reach the pinnacle both as an actor and as a pop star. He appeared in 60 films, winning the Best Actor Award in the 1991 Hong Kong Film Awards for the film Days of Being Wild, and winning the Best Original Song Award in the 1993 Golden Horse Film Festival for the film The Bride With White Hair. He achieved international status with such films as Rouge, Farewell My Concubine and Happy Together.
The youngest of 10 children, Leslie was born in Hong Kong on 12 September, 1956. His father was tailor to the actor William Holden. After the parents divorce, he went to Leeds University to study Textile Management. In 1976 he returned to Hong Kong and won second prize in the ATV Asian Music contest. This paved the way for him to work as a pop singer on television, film and the stage. The success of his 1981 album The Wind Blows On made him one of Asias most popular singers.
In 1986 he was cast opposite Chow Yun-Fat in the film A Better Tomorrow, directed by John Woo. It was followed in 1988 when he played the lead in Stanley Kwans film, Rouge. This highly acclaimed film showed that Leslie was capable of playing both a romantic as well as an action lead.
Leslie's talent and boyish good looks enabled him to be noticed by several of Hong Kongs most celebrated directors. In 1990, he once again appeared opposite Chow Yun-Fat in John Woos Once a Thief. In 1991, he played the villain in Wong Kar-Wais Days of Being Wild, and in 1993, he was a romantic swordsman in The Bride With White Hair.
But it was his appearance in Chen Kaiges internationally acclaimed film Farewell My Concubine (1993) that allowed him to demonstrate his most sensitive acting skills. Ironically he played a tragic gay in this film, and life seems to have imitated art.
He appeared in two Wong Kar-Wais films, Ashes of Time in 1994, and Happy Together in 1997. The latter was highly acclaimed and is noted for its controversially explicit sex scenes.
In 2002 he played the role of a psychiatrist in Law Chi-Leungs film Inner Senses, which attracted a nomination for Best Actor in the Hong Kong Film Awards 2003. Sadly he will never know whether or not he won.
A brilliant singer and actor, a legend in his own lifetime, he will be profoundly missed.
1. Inner Senses (Yee do hung gaan) (2002)
2. Okinawa Rendezvous (Luen chin chung sing) (2000)
3. And I Hate You So (Siu chan chan) (2000)
4. Double Tap (Cheong wong) (2000)
5. The Kid (Lau sing yue) (1999)
6. Moonlight Express (Sing yuet tung wa) (1999)
7. Red Lovers aka A Time To Remember (Hong se lian ren) (1998)
8. Ninth Happiness (1998)
9. Knock Off (1998)
10. Anna Magdelena (On na ma dut lin na) (1998)
11. Happy Together (Cheun gwong tsa sit) (1997)
12. All's Well, Ends Well (97 ga yau choi si) (1997)
13. Tri-star (Da san yuan) (1996)
14. Who's the Man, Who's the Woman? (Gum gee yuk yip 2) (1996)
15. Shanghai Tan aka Shanghai Grand (San seung hoi taan) (1996)
16. Viva Erotica (Se qing nan nu) (1996)
17. Yang & Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema (1996)
18. Temptress Moon (Feng yue) (1996)
19. The Chinese Feast (Jin yu man tang) (1995)
20. Phantom Lover (Ye ban ge sheng) (1995)
21. It's a Wonderful Life (Dai fu zhi jia) (1994)
22. He's a Woman, She's a Man (Gum gee yuk yip) (1994)
23. Over the Rainbow Under the Skirt (Ji de... xiang jiao cheng shu shi II: Chu lian qing ren) (1994) (uncredited)
24. Long and Winding Road (Jin xiu qian cheng) (1994)
25. Ashes of Time (Dung che sai duk) (1994)
26. Bride With White Hair (Bai fa mo nu zhuan) (1993)
27. Bride With White Hair 2 (Bai fa mo nu zhuan II) (1993)
28. All's Well, Ends Well Too (Hua tian xi shi) (1993)
29. Eagle Shooting Heroes (Sediu yinghung tsun tsi dung sing sai tsau) (1993)
30. Farewell My Concubine (Ba wang bie ji) (1993)
31. All's Well, Ends Well aka Family Happiness (Jia you xi shi) (1992)
32. Arrest The Restless (Laam Gong juen ji faan fei jo fung wan) (1992)
33. The Banquet (Haomen yeyan) (1991)
34. Days of Being Wild (A Fei jing juen) (1991)
35. Once A Thief (Zong heng si hai) (1990)
36. Chinese Ghost Story II (Sinnui yauman II) (1990)
37. Miss Asia Pagaent 1989 (1989) (TV)
38. Aces Go Places V: The Terracotta Hit (Xin zuijia paidang) (1989)
39. Chatter Street Killer (1988)
40. Fatal Love (Sha zhi lian) (1988)
41. A Chinese Ghost Story (Sinnui yauman) (1987)
42. A Better Tomorrow II (Yinghung bunsik II) (1987)
43. Rouge (Yin ji kau) (1987)
44. A Better Tomorrow (Ying huang boon sik) (1986)
45. Last Song In Paris (Ou ran) (1986)
46. For Your Heart Only (Wei ni zhong qing) (1985)
47. Intellectual Trio (Long feng zhi duo xing) (1984)
48. Double Decker (San wen zhi) (1984)
49. Merry Christmas (Sheng dan kuai le) (1984)
50. Behind The Yellow Line (Yuen fan) (1984)
51. First Time (1983)
52. Crazy Romance (Da sao ba) (1982)
53. Energetic 21 (1982)
54. Nomad (Lie huo qing chun) (1982)
55. Little Dragon Maiden (1982)
56. Lemon Can Be Happy aka Teenage Dreamers (Ning mung hoh lok) (1982)
57. Encore (1980)
58. The Drummer (Gu shou) (1980)
59. On Trial (Shi ye sheng) (1980)
60. Erotic Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong lou chun shang chun) (1978)