In the first minutes of Wong Kar-wai's 1990 Days of Being Wild, Leslie Cheung strikes up a chat with Maggie Cheung. She's lovely and lonely; he's smoldering and supercool. Out of the blue, he purrs a boast to Maggie: "You'll see me in your dreams tonight." Next day he comes by again, and she brags that she didn't dream of him. "Of course," he replies with practiced confidence, "you couldn't sleep at all."
Ah, Leslie: suave, cocksure, with a touch of the brute (they love him for it) and a hint of sad solitude. A Canto-pop idol and film idol since the '70s, Cheung was dubbed "the Elvis of Hong Kong" by Canadian critic John Charles. Except that Leslie lasted longer, did more, dared more. And did it his way. It's fair to call him the most widely adored and admired male diva of the late 20th century.
Cheung starred in many of the signal popular successes and artistic glories of Hong Kong's golden movie age: John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung's A Chinese Ghost Story, Stanley Kwan's Rouge, Ronny Yu's The Bride With White Hair, Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time and Happy Together. He won international acclaim for his role as a Peking Opera princess in the Cannes Palme d'Or winner Farewell My Concubine. As a singer he stood boldly, sometimes blatantly—in high heels, waist-length hair and a designer dress—atop the Cantopop charts, from his first song-contest crooning of American Pie in 1976 to his 2001 CD Forever Leslie. His concerts, alternately suburban-soulful and androgynous-sinful, packed the Chinese diaspora in around the world.
Back home, Leslie—whose homosexuality he hinted at, exploited and deflected until it was the worst-kept secret in Hong Kong showbiz—has been catnip for the voracious paparazzi. "They follow me everywhere," he told Stephen Short for a TIME Asia profile I wrote two years ago. "They know my car numbers, so they're there whether I'm at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Coffee Shop or at Propaganda [a hip gay club]. I don't even put my litter outside the house. People try to find things and sell them."
If he changed at all during his half-life in the public eye, it was to become more wily in the lavishing and husbanding of his allure. A cunning tease, he developed what might be called the Leslie Two-Step: seduce, then withdraw; approach and forbid. Such guile ensured that his appeal, which could have subsided like a schoolgirl's crush, remained a long-running provocation, a sustaining fever. He could have qualified as a monument to pop longevity if he had not been still in his glistening prime—and still so damned gorgeous. Any visitor to Hong Kong who mentioned his name to a local film maven would hear the same refrain: a conspiratorial "Guess how old he is." As if Leslie kept a rotting portrait of himself in the attic.
Leslie Cheung turned 46 last September 12, and will forever stay that age, no older. But he chose a drastic method of staving off wrinkles, a pot belly, the whims of a fickle public. On Tuesday he strode through the Mandarin Oriental lobby, took a room on the 24th floor, walked out onto the terrace that gives a view of Hong Kong Harbor, and jumped off. He landed in front of the hotel on the Connaught Road sidewalk and was pronounced dead at a local hospital at 7:05 p.m.
In a region already unnerved by the outbreak of the SARS contagion, the reaction to Leslie's dreadful April Fool's shock was swift and volcanic. His Hong Kong fans, many of them in audible tears, clogged the radio shows with their grief and love. The www.lesliecheung.com website, which offered fans worldwide a memory book to sign, received so many hits it was virtually impossible to get through for 24 hours. Wong Kar-wai and Chen Kaige issued messages of grieving.
I too felt shocked. And pissed. Mourning gave way to rancor: he had no right to do this, to deprive us of his brilliance, his overbite, his presence on earth. A star's magnificence is a gift, not to himself, but to us. We, his fans and friends, are the ones to say it's over—and ain't over. No one is so possessive as the bereft. We buy into a star and want a lifetime guarantee. Ours.
Grady Hendrix, the Shakespeare of the Subway Cinema movie collective, expressed this poignantly in a message he sent me yesterday:
"Leslie was supposed to be bright, and beautiful, and brittle, and bitchy forever. ... [But] when Leslie Cheung killed himself he was just a guy... a guy who was looking in the mirror and seeing a receding hairline, an expanding waistline, a lack of options. He didn't see the hopes and dreams we had all projected onto him, he was seeing lines around his eyes that he had never seen before. ... And he was lonely, so lonely that he couldn't bear the thought of being alive for even one more minute. ... I look at Leslie Cheung in The Chinese Feast and I can't make the guy on-screen the guy in the hotel room who killed himself. ... Trying to reconcile these two men makes my heart ache and my eyes water."
It happens that my wife Mary and I knew Leslie a little, and had been in his thrall before we met him. At the 1993 Cannes Film Festival we saw The Bride With White Hair and Farewell My Concubine. The first was martial-arts fantasy, the second historical epic: The Sunshine Boys reconfigured as tragedy spanning a half-century of Chinese heartbreak. To see an actor play the world-weary swordsman in love with a wolf woman (Brigitte Lin) and homosexual masochist in love with his stolid partner (Zhang Fengyi) was a revelation. Returning to New York, I rented as many Leslie Cheung movies as I could find at Kim's Video, and that spurred me into the colony's burgeoning filmography. As much as anyone, Leslie hooked me on Hong Kong movies.
We later met the star a few times, as I will tabulate later. And we figured to see him next week, on our first trip to Hong Kong in three years; the director Yonfan said he hoped to arrange a meal for us with Leslie and Brigitte! Even I feared that was too much legend for one dinner table. But SARS was aligned against us. We postponed our trip to Hong Kong. And we will never see Leslie, except in dreams on the screen, and on the screen of our dreams.
Hong Kong is the tattle capital of the entertainment world; its score of dailies pounce voraciously on film and TV actors and Cantopop singers. Late last year the local dailies speculated on Cheung's demeanor. Reports said he was stressed, depressed. Had he broken up with Daffy Tong, the lawyer to whom Leslie had been "married" (his word) for 20 years? Was the perpetual youth facing a tumble into midlife? Some reports had the actor "haunted," to the brink of suicide, by his most recent movie, the Lo Chi-leung thriller Inner Senses.
Ridiculous! Leslie had played men in love with ghosts in some of his most famous films (A Chinese Ghost Story and its immediate sequel, Rouge, The Bride With White Hair). His fans gave him the nickname the Phantom Lover, after a film in which he incarnated a demon romancer. It could be said that Leslie's entire career was a risky game he shared with his audience: Let's pretend I'm straight; let's pretend I'm pretending. He was too smart a fellow, and too cynical, to fall for one of the corniest plots in melodrama: the actor who is ensorcelled by his role. I had watched Inner Senses last October, when it was part of Subway Cinema's In the Mood for Gore retrospective of Hong Kong horror movies, and had been impervious to its ethereal chills. So last night I screened it again.
Inner Senses is about Yan (Karena Lam), a young woman who sees dead people, and Jim (Leslie) the psychiatrist she goes to for help. The therapy proceeds smoothly—Yan seems cured of her illusions, and doctor and patient fall in love—until a madwoman attacks Jim, breaks a glass on his head and screams, "Why aren't you dead yet? You can never escape! Die, just die!" Jim now catches the seeing-things bug. A dead girl crowds his field of vision, or field of dreams. We learn the ghost is Jim's schoolgirl sweetheart, who went mad when he jilted her and killed herself by leaping to her death. The film has its denouement on the roof where the ghost had jumped decades before. Jim walks to the unguarded ledge, looks over, turns back and sees the dead girl. "I know what I have to do," he tells her. "You want me to jump? You want me to die." Stepping out on the ledge again, he nods and says, "I'll die with you."