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Wednesday, April 9, 2003

Farewell, my Leslie


It seemed at first like a bad April Fool's joke when the news broke last Tuesday: Hong Kong's leading actor, singer and heart-throb, Leslie Cheung, dead at age 46 after a suicide leap from the 24th floor of a hotel.

The note found on the singer -- composed on the hotel balcony while he sipped a lemonade just minutes before taking his final bow -- began with one word: "depression."

Rumors of spats with his partner of more than a decade, Daffy Tong, have been denied by friends of the actor -- the tabloid press harping on about such "rumors" was probably a greater factor. Theories are also flying about of a supernatural curse that befell Cheung while shooting his last film, "Inner Senses," in which he played a psychiatrist almost lured into jumping to his death by the spirit of a dead girlfriend.

More prosaic reasons abound, however: Cheung had been suffering from throat problems and other illnesses, which forced him to put his singing career on hold and were threatening to end his acting work as well.

Cheung -- a Canto-pop crooner who rose to cinematic fame in the '80s in the action-fantasies of Tsui Hark ("Chinese Ghost Story") and the bullet-ballets of John Woo ("A Better Tomorrow") -- once considered turning his back on stardom and leaving it all behind.

He took on one more role, however, as a homosexual Chinese opera singer in Chen Kai-ge's "Farewell, My Concubine," which ended up taking the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1993.

Cheung's career hit new heights, and -- for a pretty-boy actor who'd kept his sexual orientation discreetly closeted -- the role hinted at new possibilities for his career, that he could expose this previously hidden side of his psyche and audiences would still love him.

If anything, they loved him more, and Cheung played with his newly adopted image in a diverse number of films, ranging from the gender-bender comedy "He's a Woman, She's a Man," to the artistic triumph of "Happy Together," Wong Kar-wai's tragic tale of a gay couple's stormy break-up in Buenos Aires.

In that film, like so many others, Cheung played the heartbreaker. He could play a gigolo who seduced Gong Li with ruthless calculation in Chen Kai-ge's "Temptress Moon," or an utterly suave and irresponsible ladykiller in Wong Kar-wai's breakthrough film, "Days Of Being Wild." The scene in that film, where he approaches a young Maggie Cheung, looks her in the eyes and hooks her in one minute flat, is one of the most iconic moments of modern Hong Kong cinema.

Cheung's character in "Days" goes down in a hail of gunfire, a suicidal act driven by pain, loss and self-loathing. Ditto for his opera-singer in "Concubine," who slits his throat mid-performance as a final gesture of love. Cheung himself may or may not have done it for love, but it's clear the sadness and anguish he brought to his most intense roles was inseparable from his own being.

Perhaps if he'd left Hong Kong back in the early '90s, he'd still be alive today, away from the pressure-cooker of stardom and scandal. But he chose his art, and for that we should honor him, not mourn him. He gave us his all for as long as he had it to give.



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