[FEATURE] Ten Years Later: A Leslie Cheung Introspective
Note: To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Leslie Cheung’s passing, this is the first of two feature articles written by JayneStars’ Contributing Writer, dd, to celebrate the great music and film legend.
In the entertainment business, your star shines the brightest when you are in the spotlight, and eventually extinguishes when you are out of it. Many actors come and go; they fade out of our memories because they did not leave any significant impact on the industry. If this is the case, why is Leslie Cheung (張國榮)–affectionately known as Gor Gor by those who respected and adored him–still on our minds ten years later? What makes him so special that sets him apart from the rest? What qualities do you need to have so that your memory is able to remain in people’s hearts even after you are no longer there?
The answer is simple. You need to be great. You need to have made such an impact that through everyone’s eyes you are an exemplary personification of your craft.
The term used to describe such people are called “idols”. Idols are those who can do things normal people are incapable of. They excel in this particular skill that separates them from the rest which in turn makes them the object of our respect and awe. Being a superstar or an idol requires many things: luck, natural-born talent, and the innate drive to reach for the stars. What made Leslie so great was that he was able to do it all.
Born the youngest in a family of ten, Leslie oftentimes found himself alone. His family was not broken, but it was troubled. His father frequently met with mistresses and would come home drunk. Both parents worked and the rest of his siblings were older than him so Leslie found solace in the family’s maid, named “Sixth Sister”, who was closer to him than any of his family. With no guidance from his siblings or parents, Leslie’s grades began to drop. However, he showed an affinity with music, always participating in school music festivals as well as being naturally gifted in English, winning prizes for his play recitals. Sensing his enthusiasm towards English, his parents suggested that he study abroad in England.
“After saying my goodbyes to my family, I turned around, walked away and never looked back. No lingering feelings compelled me to stay.”
There Leslie attended the Eccles Hall School where he achieved sufficient grades to be granted a scholarship to the University of Leeds, majoring in textile design–as his father wanted him to take over the family business–and minoring in English. Unfortunately, his studies were cut short and he was summoned back to Hong Kong due to his father falling ill.
Leslie the Actor
My first taste of Leslie Cheung on the big screen was 1992’s All’s Well Ends Well <家有囍事>, which by the way, Raymond Wong’s (黃百鳴) new hobby seems to be resurrecting his old movies and beating them dead with a stick. Of course, this star-studded Chinese New Year cash-in is not representative of what Leslie was really capable of. I would be lying if I said that I did not enjoy the 180-degree personality change in the film that only Leslie could pull off so convincingly. And that only scratches the surface. Over the next few years, I watched several hundred films, many of which were part of Hong Kong cinema’s golden age and I noticed that Leslie was indeed at the forefront of many of these movies. This was no coincidence; the directors definitely knew what a commodity Leslie was. Charismatic and handsome almost to a fault, Leslie was often typecast as the young romantic lead, as either the naïve target of lustful females, or the heart breaker twirling the female subject of his affection around his fingertips.
With his movie and television career beginning in the late 70s/early 80s, Leslie’s debut on the big screen coincided with the “Hong Kong New Wave”. It was at this time where directors used new and ground-breaking film techniques to show audiences around the world the real Hong Kong. Unbridled action, guns with unlimited ammo, triads, neon-signs penetrating the smoky darkness of the Hong Kong night skies with their artificial glow. Yet, on the counter side, there were also films of humble and hard-working families living together under small roofs, relations between families, working life, marriage and other socioeconomic issues were explored – everything was on tap. The number of films released by the industry was at an all-time high; production costs were low and many unforgettable classics such as Peking Opera Blues <刀馬旦>, Police Story <警察故事> and God of Gamblers < 赌神> were put on the screen ready to be consumed by the entertainment-starved public.
There was a need for talented actors with wide acting range to bring onscreen characters to life, and oh boy did Leslie Cheung do just that. Beginning his career in the softcore film, Erotic Dreams of the Red Chamber <紅樓夢>, Leslie cultivated his acting in TV series and several films until his big break in the instantly-recognizable 1986 film A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色>, where he portrayed the conflicted policeman younger brother of the crook protagonist. The following year, he starred in A Chinese Ghost Story <倩女幽魂> as a young tax collector falling for a ghost, and also in the same year reprised his role in A Better Tomorrow II <英雄本色 II>, in which he was nominated for Hong Film Awards Best Actor. In 1988, he played the love interest opposite Anita Mui (梅艷芳) in Rouge <胭脂扣> with whom he would collaborate with many times over the next fifteen years.
Kit’s death – A Better Tomorrow II
In 1990, Leslie was able to show the culmination of his acting prowess in Wong Kar Wai’s (王家衛) Days of Being Wild <阿飛正傳>. In this film, he plays Yuddy, a slick womanizer who was well aware of his good looks and lady-killer personality. Watching Yuddy mesmerize both Maggie Cheung (張曼玉) and Carina Lau’s (劉嘉玲) characters was like watching a master craftsman at work. He starts with a block of marble and starts chiselling away and you have no idea what he is trying to do, nor are you convinced that making anything with hand tools is plausible at all – why not just use a machine? But slowly, the work takes form and in the end what stands before you is a masterpiece. And you still do not know what just happened despite watching the entire process from the beginning.
One Minute Friends
The Earring Pair
Keeping busy, Leslie starred in The Bride with White Hair <白髮魔女傳> and its sequel along with other films until his next big movies, Farewell my Concubine <霸王别姬> and Ashes of Time <東邪西毒>. The following years, he would dip in and out of movies to juggle a music career where he both composed and performed. He went on to star in the Chinese production Temptress Moon <風月> and in Category III film, Viva Erotica <色情男女> where he played a director trying to create a smut film with a ragtag bunch of actors who ended up needing a bit of his vision. His next few significant films were Happy Together <春光乍洩>, directed by Wong Kar Wai and co-starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai (梁朝偉), to whom Leslie would lose the Best Actor award to. Films that followed were Moonlight Express <星月童話>, Double Tap <槍王> and his final film Inner Senses <異度空間> where he plays a psychiatrist tortured by the memory of his past girlfriend.
As a movie buff who has tried to watch as many Hong Kong movies as possible, I have come to notice what makes good acting and what does not. For example, a pretty face does not mean jack if you cannot emote properly because in the end, it is how you use it in order to communicate emotions (sorry Ekin Cheng 鄭伊健 and his fans). It is the eyes. If you are a really good actor, you do not need to speak; people can tell how you are feeling and what kind of person you are just by looking at your eyes. Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Leslie are both great at emoting with just their eyes. It really brings the point home when you watch Ashes of Time when Wong Kar Wai overuses the close-up shot to great effect.
I was also very impressed by Leslie’s acting range. Throughout the years, Leslie has portrayed every major archetype as the handsome playboy in Merry Christmas, Rouge, and Days of Being Wild, the hero in Moonlight Express, the quiet and brooding psychopath in Double Tap, the haunted psychiatrist in Inner Senses, as well as comedic roles such as in Alls Well Ends Well. He truly understood human emotions well and embodied the characters by drawing from this knowledge and utilized body language to do so. It haunts me to this day how well Leslie portrayed Yuddy as a cocky and confident jerk, while making him seem human and vulnerable at the same time.
Leslie in “Merry Christmas”
Leslie the Singer
There was a time in my life before mobile phones acted as proxy alarm clocks and I did not have Katy Perry’s “Call Me, Maybe” wake me up every morning to start my day. No, it was Leslie Cheung’s dulcet voice, unwelcoming as it was at the time when it woke me up from deep sleep leading me to think, “Oh, yay, a school day.”
It all began when he returned to Hong Kong at the beckoning of his father. His friends decided to participate in a singing contest and invited Leslie to tag along. He ended up as a runner-up by performing a rendition of “American Pie” which caught the eye of a record producer. Leslie was immediately signed.
“I didn’t actually know how to sing. I was just blowing into a mic at that time”
Leslie’s first few years in the music industry were tough. Critics everywhere panned him, blasting him for his “chicken voice” (pre-pubescent with no range) and saying that he was pretty average. He was even booed off the stage once! It was only after collaborating with composer and mentor Michael Lai was he able to utilize his full vocal range.
In the early 1980s, similar to the film industry having a makeover with the emergence of “New Wave” cinema, Cantopop also experienced a similar restructuring. Cantopop at that time was defined as having a fast beat, consisting of high energy and exciting choreography. Cool came in the form of young and handsome singers wearing jeans and sporting sunglasses while back-up dancers danced to the tune of a synthesized beat. After Leslie’s first hit “Monica”, many other hits followed earning him the recognition and popularity as one of Hong Kong’s leading fathers of Cantopop. Every song he brought out would earn him a place in RTHK and TVB’s Top Ten awards. Ballads, Cantopop, Cantorock, songs in Mandarin, interpretation of songs sung by females adapted into his smooth voice and duets with Anita Mui, there was nothing he could not do.
Leslie the Person
“My motto is to bring the best out of myself every time. I don’t want to feel like I need to be better than ‘this’ person, and I don’t want others to feel that they need to be better than me. I just know that I need to give it my best.”
Leslie was a person who cared too much. He cared about how others saw him; he cared about his family; he cared about his co-stars and he cared about his fans. It was Joey Wong (王祖賢) who came up with the name of “Gor Gor”, as she followed him around because he looked after her and gave her pointers on the set of A Chinese Ghost Story. In an interview, when asked what he cared about the most, Leslie answered: “family”. No, what he really meant was “love”. The relations he had built up were very important for him as they decided his own fate, especially his relationship with Anita Mui with whom he treated as a little sister. It was in fact a conscientious choice that he and Anita decided to leave the music industry together in 1989. While he cared for others deeply, others also cared for him. When Leslie passed, Anita stayed home crying all day while watching the memorial shows airing on TV.
There was always a certain air of confidence that Leslie held whenever he appeared on television. His smart quips accompanying his cheeky smile often threw flustered hosts. He knew what attracted women, and he also knew what made men either respect him or brim with jealousy. And he knew he was handsome as hell. During his later years, whether he was wearing a flashy tuxedo, a skin-tight shirt or a dress complete with women’s shoes and wig, he carried himself the only way he knew: with style and flair.
The 24th Floor of the Mandarin Oriental
Over the years, the police and reporters have pieced together what occurred on April 1, 2003 through call logs and witness accounts. However, there was only one person that fateful night who knew what was going on inside of Leslie Cheung’s head, and that person rented his usual luxury suite in the Mandarin Oriental. There, he thought long and hard about his life while looking off into the Hong Kong cityscape from the terrace, phone in one hand and a glass of liquor in the other which he would set down from time to time. If he planned to die that day, that notion was not conceived that morning. No, Leslie had met with a friend for lunch that afternoon to talk about work and also made plans to play badminton with his partner, Daffy Tong (唐鶴德).
Leslie’s manager, Florence Chan (陳淑芬), had been in contact with him the entire night. Her last message to him was that she wanted to meet him. She was already at the hotel’s ground floor café. Leslie’s final response was that he would meet her there. Moments later Leslie would jump from the 24th floor balcony of the Mandarin Oriental. This was at 6:41 PM. He was rushed to the Queen Mary Hospital and pronounced dead at 7:06 PM. Leslie left behind a note he had penned earlier.
“Depression! Many thanks to all my friends. Many thanks to Professor Felice Lieh Mak [Cheung’s last psychiatrist]. This year has been so tough. I can’t stand it anymore. Many thanks to Mr. Tong. Many thanks to my family. Many thanks to Sister Fei. In my life, I did nothing bad. Why does it have to be like this?”
Whatever was the cause of this depression, Leslie was able to mask it well. Though his friends reported that he was surely different towards the last few months of his life, he kept looking forward to new movie roles and composing songs for a new album.
Although he had work lined up, the last few years of his life saw Leslie’s movie roles lessen. His presence ebbed slowly, and surely dwindled from the public eye. His manager, Florence Chan, revealed during an interview in 2004 that Leslie would stay at home and did not want the public to see him in that state. All that I can say is he cared for his fans more than for himself and however much Leslie suffered, he suffered alone so it would not affect the people who cared for him.
The Hong Kong media is not known to be a merciful one. Speculation was rife. Some say he was assassinated. Others reckoned he was suffering from an undisclosed illness and just wanted to end it all. Perhaps his perception of how his fans viewed him because of his sexuality began to wear on him. Some thought that he realized he was getting old which was something that he did not want, so he wanted leave while he was still beautiful.
The Year That Was 2003
There is a saying that goes: “When it rains, it pours”, and 2003 was one year that both Hong Kong and the film industry would like to forget ever happened. SARS, signs of a declining film industry after the boost it enjoyed from Infernal Affairs <無間道>, the unemployment rate reaching an all-time high, and the untimely deaths of Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui and Blackie Ko (柯受良) all contributed to a horrid year. It makes me almost angry that year after year at the conclusion of the memorials for Leslie, everyone immediately remembers that Anita Mui’s passing is next on the schedule. This dark cloud that loomed over Hong Kong really made us appreciate what we had while remembering that life really is fleeting. Self-preservation, taking care of ourselves and others while living on and doing what we needed to do before we lose the chance to do them were the things that really mattered the most.
There are not many people who can perform as Leslie. People who try to both sing and dance usually become mediocre at both. No, people like Leslie Cheung are a dying breed as his contemporaries who were able to do both are still in the top billing positions in movies and are still performing concerts 25 years after first becoming famous. As I look out the window and see Aaron Kwok’s (郭富城) ridiculously photoshopped face plastered on an oversized poster hanging on the side of a building in Causeway Bay, and news that Andy Lau (劉德華) is taking the male lead of a Mission Impossible-inspired (read: rip-off) movie, I realize that what Leslie achieved is something that cannot be replicated by the actors or singers of today. And this is what endeared him to fans all over the world.
Ten years later, we are still thinking about Leslie. We are watching his movies on DVD and we are cleaning the VCDs with toothpaste to take out the scratches. TVB and ATV as well as the high-definition digital channels will be playing tribute programs all week. Two million cranes will be the centerpiece of a memorial in Causeway Bay on April 1. A concert will be held by Florence Chan and many of Leslie’s closest friends with his final message to be relayed to everyone who cared about him. No on is mourning him, rather, it is a celebration of his life and his achievements.
But what of his legacy?
Leslie will go down as a pioneer. He will be someone who had inspired, and will inspire many people in the future. People will look back and watch him if they want to learn what made Hong Kong cinema. People who want to become actors will study him meticulously as he is as skilled and as charismatic an actor can get.
Was he just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time? Was Leslie Cheung merely lucky to be part of Cantopop’s golden age and the Hong Kong film industry’s “New Wave”? No, on the contrary; Cantopop’s golden age and the “Hong Kong New Wave” were lucky to have Leslie Cheung.
And so are we all.
I am Leslie TVB Special
Leslie Cheung fanclub of China (http://www.lesliecheung.com.cn/archive/intro/view-58.html)
People’s Daily Online (http://lady.people.com.cn/n/2013/0318/c1014-20820469.html)
This original feature article is written by dd, a Contributing Writer at JayneStars.com.