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Leslie Cheung - Forever Young

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

As his continued popularity after his tragic death proves, Leslie Cheung is one of the few stars to truly achieve immortality. Equally loved as an actor and singer, he featured in many of the iconic films of the Hong Kong golden age of the mid 1980s - mid 1990s as well as releasing a staggering list of best selling hit songs. Known to his fans as "Gor Gor" (literally meaning "elder brother"), Cheung was a respected performer of diverse talents, whose charismatic personality is sorely missed in a modern industry overpopulated with vacuous, mass-marketed teen stars.

Leslie Cheung was born Cheung Fat Chung on September 12, 1956 in Hong Kong, the youngest of ten children. He was exposed to the film industry at an early age by his father, who worked as a tailor for the likes of Cary Grant and William Holden. His was not a happy childhood, being raised largely by his grandmother and the family maid, with his parents constantly arguing on the rare occasions when they were together. After his parents divorced, a 15-year-old Cheung was sent to a boarding school in Norwich, England, where he worked at his relatives' restaurant between studies. It was during this time that he took the name "Leslie", apparently as he liked the fact that it was unisex, suiting both men and women. Cheung stayed on in England to study textile management at Leeds University, though returned to Hong Kong after his father fell ill.

It was in 1976 that Cheung got his big break in the entertainment industry, winning second prize in the ATV Asian Music Contest. This led to numerous television appearances and the signing of a contract with Polydor Records, with whom he released the albums Day Dreaming and Lover's Arrow in 1977 and 1979 respectively. Unfortunately, the public proved difficult to win over, and both releases, along with his early attempts at touring were unpopular. Cheung's film career got off to a similarly undistinguished start in 1978 with The Erotic Dream of the Red Chamber, an obscure piece of soft pornography whose sexual content he later claimed not to have been aware of at the time.

In 1982, Cheung joined Capital Artists, releasing his first hit album, The Wind Blows On, which helped establish him as one of the leaders of the new breed of Cantopop singers. It was then that he met his long time friend Anita Mui, a fellow singer and actress, with whom he would later star in several famous films. His star continued to rise with the 1984 release of the song "Monica", which won the RTHK Top Ten Chinese Gold Songs Award and ushered in a new era of fast-moving dance music. Cheung's musical career continued to flourish with albums such as For Your Love Only and Love in Those Days, both of which contained several Top Ten Gold Songs.

Slowly but surely, Cheung gained ground in the film industry, with supporting roles in Encore in 1980 and On Trial in 1981, for which he received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards. This helped him to achieve leading man status, though initially he starred mainly in teen comedies such as the Shaw Brothers' Teenage Dreamers and Behind the Yellow Line. One of his most notable appearances during this period was in Patrick Tam's Nomad, which won him a Best Actor nomination and which he himself considered to be his first proper film.

Cheung's film career began in earnest in 1986, when he was cast opposite Chow Yun Fat in John Woo's masterpiece A Better Tomorrow. The film, with its stylish direction and blood-soaked themes of brotherhood and honor was hugely successful, and started a new trend of Hong Kong gangster and action cinema. The following year proved to be a significant one, as Cheung starred not only in the equally popular A Better Tomorrow 2, but in Stanley Kwan's supernatural romantic drama Rouge (alongside Anita Mui) and Tsui Hark's A Chinese Ghost Story. The latter two earned him further Best Actor nominations at the Hong Kong Awards. The films were all international hits, cementing his position as one of the top actors working in Asia, and have since come to be regarded by critics as classics of Hong Kong cinema.

Meanwhile, Cheung's popularity as a singer reached meteoric heights with a series of massive hits released with Cinepoly Records, including Summer Romance (which was the best-selling CD of 1987), Hot Summer, Virgin Snow, Final Encounter, and Salute, the first ever charity album recorded by a Cantopop star. Despite this triumphant run of form, in 1989 he shocked his fans by announcing his plans to retire after a groundbreaking farewell tour which would consist of 33 consecutive nights of concerts. The tour was designed to mark his departure not only from the entertainment industry but also from Hong Kong, as he left in 1990 and emigrated to Canada, where he applied for citizenship.

This proved to be a brief sojourn, and he soon returned to the Hong Kong screen. However, he now showed a desire to broaden his horizons, and to move beyond the confines of his usual "good-guy" roles. This became evident when in 1991 he played a ruthless womaniser in Wong Kar Wai's Days of Being Wild in a performance that finally won him the Best Actor statuette at the Hong Kong Film Awards, as well as a nomination at the Golden Horse Film Festival. Although he had thus proved his ability as a serious dramatic actor, he continued to play comedic and traditional heroic characters in John Woo's Once a Thief, Ronny Yu's The Bride With White Hair, and the wacky All's Well That Ends Well, in which he played a rather effeminate man alongside Stephen Chow.

Significantly, in 1992 he accepted his first gay role, as Peking opera star Chen Dieyi in Chen Kaige's magnificent historical drama Farewell My Concubine. The film met with critical acclaim worldwide, winning multiple awards, including the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival (the first Chinese film to do so), as well as Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography. The film also marked his acceptance as an actor of note by the Chinese mainland, and he went on to work with Chen again on Temptress Moon, an atmospheric tale of opium addiction which also starred Gong Li.

Cheung returned to work with Wong Kar Wai on his 1994 attempt to revive the wuxia genre, Ashes of Time (for which his performance won him the Best Actor Award of Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards), and in his controversial 1997 film Happy Together. The latter was particularly interesting as it saw Cheung again playing a gay character, featuring some fairly graphic sex scenes with his more masculine boyfriend, played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Cheung had been subjected to constant speculation regarding his sexuality, something that he responded to with firm denials in the early stages of his career, citing that he had once asked ex-girlfriend Teresa Mo to marry him. However, after he returned from Canada, he spoke openly about his bisexuality and his relationship with Tong Hok Tak, a Hong Kong banker who he later referred to as his "most beloved".

In 1995 Cheung made the decision to return to the music industry, signing a contract with Rock Records and releasing his comeback album, Beloved. Although this was essentially a compilation of his film music work from the early nineties, his next release, Red was something of a revelation, a fluid mix of different musical genres that saw him breaking new stylistic ground. This new phase of his career proved equally successful, and was capped by an extensive world tour in 1997 which encompassed a mammoth 55 concerts, of which 24 were held in Hong Kong Coliseum and the other 31 in cities around the world. This tour acted as a way for him to express his personality in flamboyant and controversial fashion, in particular during a concert segment in which he would dance with a macho male partner while wearing red high-heeled shoes. Such themes were also apparent in his 2000 "Passion" tour, for which he also worked as the art director and which utilised bizarre and overtly sexual costumes by famed designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.

In 1999 he consolidated upon his success by creating his own company, Apex Music, through which he released a number of albums, including Count Down With You, Big Heat, and Untitled. These continuing achievements led to him being awarded the Golden Needle in 2000 in recognition for his lifetime services to the Cantopop industry.

During his final years, Cheung's cinematic output took on a noticeably darker aspect and he abandoned his romantic roles of the past, perhaps reflecting his off-screen battle with depression. In 1999 he starred in The Kid, as a businessman who, dissatisfied with life, finds new meaning after adopting an orphan. This was followed in 2002 by Double Tap, an action thriller in which he played a wide-eyed psychotic killer. In the same year, he began directing his first feature film, Stealing Heart, which he was forced to abandon due to ill health. Instability plagued this latter period of his career, and he dropped out of several films, including Sylvia Chang's 20, 30, 40. Wild rumors began to circulate of the star's mental and physical deterioration, some of which went as far to suggest that he was possessed by evil spirits, especially after Inner Senses.

Cheung's final film was the supernatural thriller Inner Senses, in which he rather tellingly starred as a psychiatrist who becomes haunted by his own past while trying to help a suicidal patient (played by Karena Lam). Although perhaps too much has been made of the film following his death, it remains a somewhat sinister and prophetic epitaph for a charismatic and outwardly cheerful star, whose success had hidden his battle with personal demons.

On April 1, 2003, Cheung leapt to his death from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong, stunning the industry and his adoring public. There was much speculation in the wake of his suicide as to why he had taken his own life, and family members disclosed that he had been suffering from depression for some time, having attempted to kill himself previously in 2002. His funeral drew fans from across the world, clearly demonstrating the extent to which his work had touched them, and how they had taken him to their hearts. To this day, Leslie Cheung's films and music continue to be as popular as ever, and it is clear that he will always be remembered as one of the greatest ever Asian entertainers.

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Published April 11, 2006

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