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Leslie Cheung films Happy Together 1997
Happy Together, 1997(Film still)

Remembering Leslie Cheung in seven unforgettable films

20 years after his death, Dazed remembers an infallible Hong Kong superstar and queer icon through seven of his most unforgettable movies

On 1 April 2003, Hong Kong was brought to its knees by the news that 46-year-old film star and Cantopop icon Leslie Cheung – one of the most talented and beloved idols of his generation – had died by suicide after plunging 24 floors from the roof of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

Stricken with stomach issues, insomnia, and trembling, Cheung had been downbeat about the decline of the Hong Kong film industry – which, like the wider economy, was in crisis. He’d suffered mentally following a media backlash to his final concert tour, in which he’d performed in androgynous costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. And in a country where homosexuality was illegal as recently as 1991, Cheung faced stigmatisation as an openly bisexual man. His suicide note read “Depression!… I can’t stand it anymore.”

Despite a public health emergency (this was the height of the SARS epidemic), crowds gathered en masse at the site of his death within hours of the story breaking – leaving flowers in the street while radio stations switched to sombre music. By the end of the week, as the news rippled across Asia, his casket was being visited by thousands of mourners, who queued along the streets singing his songs, in a scene that resembled that of the passing of a monarch. Over 400 friends and relatives – including Chow Yun-fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love) and Anita Mui (Rumble in the Bronx) – then bid their final farewells at his wake.

Cheung’s fandom remains as vivid as ever today, as more and more of his films have transcended borders to become globally-recognised classics. On the 20th anniversary of his death, Dazed remembers an infallible Hong Kong superstar and queer icon through seven of his most unforgettable films.

A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)

His transition to cinema was initially limited to roles as teen sweethearts and playboys, but pop star Cheung would strike gold in 1986 when he was cast as a conflicted cop in John Woo’s groundbreaking action romp A Better Tomorrow.

Hong Kong triads Ho (Ti Lung) and Mark (Chow Yun-fat) run a cash counterfeiting racket, which goes awry when the former is arrested and jailed in Taiwan. Years later, the newly-released Ho attempts to re-assimilate into society and restore his relationship with younger brother Kit (Cheung) – a loyal and ambitious young policeman. But before long, the past catches up with him, and the bullets begin to fly – testing the bonds of brotherhood (both familial and fraternal) to the extreme.

A Better Tomorrow was a founding feature in the hugely impactful “heroic bloodshed” genre – which would ignite Hong Kong and Hollywood through its gratuitous action, stylised violence, melodrama, and sassy dialogue, launching director John Woo (Face/Off) and his cast to stardom. It smashed box office records at home and won Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards – though it’s perhaps best recognised in the West today for a much-memed shot of Chow Yun-fat lighting up from a wad of flaming banknotes.

Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1987)

At the height of the country’s cinematic golden age in 1987, ‘Second Wave’ filmmaker Stanley Kwan, later Hong Kong’s first major openly gay director, cast Cheung opposite one of his closest friends in a landmark film. Anita Mui, a thriving Cantopop star known as “the Madonna of the East”, would herself die in tragic circumstances only six months after Cheung’s passing. Their joint appearance in Rouge, then, remains a poignant moment in time.

An intoxicating tale initially set in glamorous, upper-class 1930s Hong Kong, Rouge concerns a wealthy bachelor named Chan Chen-pang (Cheung), who is taken by the cheongsam-wearing courtesan Fleur (Mui) in an ornate, opium-drenched brothel. Their blossoming romance, though, is doomed – and half a century later, Fleur mysteriously re-emerges in the city’s 80s concrete metropolis to search for her long-lost lover with the help of a local newspaper owner.

Cheung would reportedly later consider Rouge – recently restored and re-released via Criterion – to be his finest acting role. And though he would not receive a prize himself, Mui and Kwan were both winners at the Hong Kong Film Awards the following year, where the hit drama also beat Wong Kar-wai’s debut As Tears Go By to take home the coveted Best Film gong.

Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1993)

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this Spring is Farewell My Concubine, the perennial masterpiece of Mainland China’s ‘Fifth Generation’ filmmakers. The movement – consisting of Beijing Film Academy students like Chen Kaige, who graduated after the Cultural Revolution – would be deified for their eschewing of party-approved narratives in favour of evocative and complex historical melodramas, which often addressed themes of societal and political oppression, and renewed international interest in Mainland Chinese cinema.

Cheung – delicate, androgynous, and utterly beguiling in his most iconic role – takes the lead in this sweeping epic, which spans a period of over 50 years. After being maimed and abandoned by his mother in 1924 and enduring brutal discipline at a Peking opera school, the effeminate Dieyi becomes famed in adulthood for his stage performances as a female concubine, while also becoming infatuated with a lifelong friend and collaborator; a heterosexual man. All the while, China is rocked by conflict and political turmoil – leading to rejection, betrayal and tragedy in Dieyi’s later life.

Despite an initial ban in China due to its representation of homosexuality (14 minutes of footage had to be cut to ensure its release), Farewell My Concubine – which showcases jaw-dropping costumes, make-up and set design – would make a huge impact overseas. At Cannes, it became the first (and, to date, the only) Chinese-language production to win the Palme d’Or – a prize shared it shared that year with Jane Campion’s The Piano. A BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and two Academy Award nominations followed thereafter.

Ashes of Time (Wong Kar-wai, 1994)

Having won the best actor prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1991 for his portrayal of a rebellious scoundrel in Days of Being Wild, Cheung would reunite with Wong Kar-wai for a postmodern and elliptical martial fantasy the following year. Partly inspired by John Ford’s western The Searchers, Ashes of Time took two arduous years to complete – following re-writes, re-shoots, and a lengthy post-production period.

It’s set around a desert outpost in ancient China, where mercenary broker Ouyang Feng (Cheung) acts as conduit for a series of intertwining stories. They involve the romances and conflicts of several curious wanderers – among them, Tony Leung’s blind swordsman; Brigitte Lin (Chungking Express)’s duplicitous instigator; and Jacky Cheung’s shoe-less assassin. As time and memories distort, their stories dissolve into one another like a haze – with sumptuous, mirage-like visuals only intensifying the delirium.

Dismissed as impenetrable and self-indulgent at the time of release, Ashes of Time remains one of Wong’s most overlooked and under-appreciated features, with Cheung – captivatingly handsome in spite of his goatee and moustache – the film’s stoic and mysterious anchor. Despite box office disappointment, the film won plenty of major awards – including best Cinematography at Venice.

Viva Erotica (Derek Yee and Lo Chi-leung, 1996)

The Asian financial crisis and the Hong Kong Handover would cement the end of an era the following year, but the Hong Kong film industry was already in major decline by the mid-90s. Cue a wildly creative and comic satire of the more salacious side of the industry in Viva Erotica, which stars Cheung as a washed-up filmmaker who attempts to restore his reputation by making Category III sex films.

“Fuck me!”, a woman shouts in the opening sex scene, legs akimbo. Gushing water, toe-sucking, and enthusiastic fucking follows – but there is also vivid colour lighting, energetic camerawork, and stylish editing to be found elsewhere as Wong Kar-wai wannabe Kwok-wing (Cheung) attempts to inspire his down-and-out crew. Nascent star Shu Qi, herself a former softcore icon, is among the most notable cast members – she’d later lead the Hou Hsiao-hsien classics Millennium Mambo, Three Times and the Cannes Best Director-winning The Assassin.

Recently given a high-definition release in the States by specialist label Kani Releasing, this Hong Kong arthouse Boogie Nights excels not because of its gratuitous nudity and surreal dream sequences – but because of its sense of heart. Despite its naughty nature, it competed for the Golden Bear at Berlin – with Cheung, the film’s relatable emotional anchor, invited back the following year to become the first-ever Asian actor on the jury panel.

Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, 1997)

“We’ve been together for a while, and we break up often… but whenever he says ‘let’s start over’ I find myself back with him.”

Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) is a doorman at a tango bar; Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) is a reckless playboy. They’re a passionate, dysfunctional gay couple with little in common, sharing a tiny apartment and a flea-ridden single bed in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In between their scuffles and break-ups – the beating heart of this movie – there are moments of serenity, with a tender tango in a dilapidated kitchen encapsulating the couple’s fragile and fleeting happiness.

Happy Together was unprecedented at the time of its release – with the intense gay lovemaking scene that opens the film ensuring a ban in China, South Korea and other parts of Asia. It also offers one of the quintessential Cheung performances, though the actor reportedly struggled with the demands of its famously erratic director – who shot scenes spontaneously with no script; went grossly over-schedule; and cut out entire characters and arcs in the final edit.

Sadly, this dazzling queer cinema masterpiece would be Cheung’s final major arthouse movie – and while he would receive a Hong Kong Film Award nomination for his performance (a prize ultimately won by his Happy Together co-star, Tony Leung), the film is arguably best remembered for launching Wong Kar-wai into the global stratosphere: he won Best Director at Cannes in 1997.

Inner Senses (Law Chi-leung, 2002)

Riding heavy on the coattails of The Sixth Sense and Ring, this formulaic horror production wouldn’t exactly prove groundbreaking. But as Cheung’s final film role, it is notable. He plays psychiatrist Jim Law, whose suicidal patient Cheung Yan (Karena Lam) encounters ghostly phenomena at her new apartment – including monstrous heads in her bathroom cabinet and re-animated corpses in her webcam. Law guides her towards recovery, but becomes haunted by memories from his past in the process. Much spookiness ensues.

It’s the final act that makes the movie worth watching – though not for any reason the director would have anticipated. In a climactic confrontation, a sinister apparition forces Law to the rooftop of an apartment block, encouraging him to jump off the edge. In response, he bargains for empathy: “I was never happy”, he cries. The camera watches him toe the lip, as a wide expanse looms a few inches away.

Law doesn’t go through with the act in Inner Senses, but only a year later, in real-life, Cheung tragically would. It is in these moments, then, that the audience can appreciate the star for who he was in his final days: radiant, dashing, and profoundly endearing in his mid-40s, and possessing a gravitas that could elevate even an unspectacular film. Gone too soon, but never forgotten: Leslie Cheung, RIP!