I remember the exact moment when I fell for Leslie Cheung: It was during Ronny Yu's The Bride With White Hair, in the scene when the lovers first meet in the grotto of flickering shadows and erotic murals. Brigitte Lin's warrior woman Lien has just released Leslie's Cho Yi Hang from a potentially-deadly embrace; he responds by cocking his head to one side, smirking, and telling her it's better to put a little distance between them. It was an arrogant, witty and very masculine display of pure sexual confidence, almost as if Cary Grant had impossibly been reborn as a slight, boyish Chinese man. He didn't just smoulder; he was positively atomic, and I was hooked.
I also remember the exact moment I heard that Leslie Cheung was dead. I was at work when my friend and Cantonese teacher Lily called with the news. As a beginning Cantonese student, I'd often practiced by making up phrases like "Leslie Cheung is my favorite actor", or "I want to go to Hong Kong and meet Leslie Cheung." Now I would never have that chance. Like so many others all over the world, I was shocked, then grief-stricken and angry - angry at Leslie for depriving of us of him, and angry at myself for being devastated by the loss of someone I'd never personally met. When I tried to explain to American friends why Leslie's death was so affecting, I found it nearly impossible - he had no equivalent in this country. The closest comparison was the 1980 death of John Lennon: Both men died while in their 40s, for reasons that that we ultimately can't know; both men were talented, well-loved and well off; and both represented an era which ended with their deaths. Because if John Lennon's murder told us the turbulent yet hopeful 60s and uncertain 70s had finally come to a violent end, then Leslie's suicide marked the passing of the golden era of the world's most exciting cinema.
Nobody embodied that golden era more than Leslie Cheung. He was its sly, strutting mascot, a pop icon whose angelic voice was surpassed only by his astonishing range as an actor. When Hong Kong's martial arts craze of the 70s gave way to the early 80s New Wave, there was Leslie in one of his first roles, in Patrick Tam's Nomad, delivering the line that would become the New Wave's most famous piece of dialogue: When his friend comments that their generation isn't contributing anything to society, Leslie responded, "What society? We are society." Even though Hong Kong film historian Stephen Teo compared the scene to Marlon Brando's delivery of "What've ya got?" in The Wild Ones, Leslie didn't really break out as an actor until 1986, when he starred in two of the most important and popular films of the decade, John Woo and Tsui Hark's A Better Tomorrow, and Ching Siu-tung and Tsui's A Chinese Ghost Story. With those two films, Hong Kong's New Wave morphed into a mainstream that achieved worldwide recognition, and with Stanley Kwan's Rouge in 1988 Leslie proved that Hong Kong movies could be artful as well as entertaining. In the 90s, Hong Kong seemed anxious to demonstrate that it could continue to provide both arthouse fare and entertainment, and once again Leslie led the way, starring for Wong Kar-wai in Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time and Happy Together. In 1993 Leslie seemed to signal some sort of cultural détente when he became one of the first Hong Kong actors to have the lead in a film by a mainland Chinese director, Chen Kaige's Farewell, My Concubine, which garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film; but rather than appear only in conspicuously arty ventures, Leslie starred in Peter Chan's 1994 gender-bending romantic comedy He's a Woman, She's a Man, which made production company UFO one of the hottest outfits in town. As the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China neared, Leslie took the risky role of a porn film director in 1996's Viva Erotica, which earned a Category III - or "X" - rating. When film production numbers plummeted in post-handover Hong Kong, Leslie returned more to his other career as Asia's biggest pop star, but in the 21st century he explored a new direction in Law Chi-leung's Double Tap, throwing away his glamorous image to play an intense, gun-obsessed psychotic. Even though Hong Kong's Golden Age was declared over, Leslie's last few roles seemed to point toward a future of brilliantly-explored characters in more intimate and unusual films. Instead, Leslie chose to put a definitive end to one of the most dazzling eras - and lives - in global cinema history.
Exactly what prompted Leslie Cheung to take his own life was - according to the note found on his battered body on a street outside Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental Hotel - the disease of depression, but Leslie left other clues as well, in other messages. In a 2001 interview with TimeAsia's Stephen Short, he seemed to hint that he understood his own place as "the Legend", a title bestowed on him by Hong Kong's media and his own fans: He said, "I may be a little passe in Hong Kong. The place is so extravagant, vulgar, expensive. I may be too soft for Hong Kong. I don't always count myself as one of them." In earlier interviews, Leslie had always used "we" when talking about Hong Kong's film industry, but then those interviews were conducted in the 80s and 90s, during the height of the Golden Era. Suddenly Leslie had become the outsider - still talented, beautiful, wealthy, relatively young and beloved, but an outsider nonetheless. His era had passed, and he seemed wistfully aware of the fact.
But what an era it was, the Era of Leslie. When I think about scenes I love from Hong Kong cinema, it's amazing how many of those scenes center on Leslie Cheung: Leslie, in his white underwear, concentrating on perfecting his dance moves before a mirror in Days of Being Wild; Leslie sitting before Stanley Kwan in his documentary Yang + Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema, answering the question "Are you a narcissist?" with a sly pause and then a grinning "Absolutely!"; Leslie going from smug self-assurance to astonishment to outrage as he watches the two Anitas kiss in Who's the Man, Who's the Woman; Leslie receiving an underwater kiss of life from a dead woman in A Chinese Ghost Story; a decadent, heavy-lidded Leslie languidly smoking opium in Rouge; Leslie performing a brilliant slapstick routine with a giant fish in A Chinese Feast; Leslie dying in the back of a car, a single tear rolling down one cheek in Shanghai Grand; Leslie as the drunken warrior carving his way (with staggering grace) through a forest-full of swordsmen in The Bride With White Hair; Leslie engaged in a slow, sad close dance with Tony Leung Chiu-wai in a tiled kitchen in Happy Together; Leslie pulling back from the lip of a skyscraper and turning to life at the end of his last film, Inner Senses.
In 1995, Leslie was asked why he'd given up singing (in 1989) to focus completely on acting, and he said that acting was "like having more lives during your lifetime." I hope he found happiness in at least some of those lives. I know I did.