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Leslie Cheung, 1956-2003

by Stephen Kelly

In his last film Inner Senses, Hong Kong superstar Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing plays Jim, a psychiatrist whose patient, Yan, literally sees dead people. But, as Jim cures Yan, he is tormented by the ghost of a girlfriend he jilted years earlier. The ghost urges him to leap to his death from the top of a building to avenge her own suicide. At the film's denouement, Jim is standing on the ledge of a building. "I know what I have to do," he says as he steps closer to the edge. "I will die with you." Jim does not leap from the building. Instead, he finds redemption and love as the dead girlfriend forgives Jim and morphs into Yan. The two huddle in each other's arms as the sun rises.

In a bizarre case of art imitating life, the ending was not so happy for the 46-year-old Leslie Cheung. On the evening of 1 April, he leapt to his death from the 24th floor of Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental Hotel. A note found on his body hinted that he was suffering from depression. "In my life, I have done nothing wrong," he wrote. "Why does it have to be like this?"

The news of Cheung's death swept through Asia quickly. Fans in Hong Kong, where was born in 1956, were particularly stunned. "I would have prayed for you if I knew you were in so much pain," wrote one on the sidewalk near the death scene.

Cheung was one of Asia's most beloved stars for two decades. Wildly successful as a singer and actor, he was nominated as best actor for his role in Inner Senses at this year's Hong Kong Movie Awards, an award he won in 1992. A veteran of some 60 films, Cheung showed astonishing versatility. Boyishly handsome with a smoldering sensuality, he could play any role, from the cad (Days of Being Wild, 1991), the noble warrior (Bride With The White Hair, 1993), good cop (A Better Tomorrow, 1986), crook (Once A Thief, 1990), chef (The Chinese Feast, 1995), and porn director (Viva Erotica, 1996). He was at home in modern and period pieces, art films and screwball comedies.

After making a series of forgettable B movies and TV dramas in the early '80s, Cheung's break in movies came in 1987 with the role of Kit in John Woo's classic A Better Tomorrow. Ostensibly a vehicle for Chow Yun Fat, the film hinged on Cheung's portrayal of a sensitive young cop. His next film, 1997's A Chinese Ghost Story was a wildly popular period piece that solidified his status as a leading man.

His film career paralleled the golden age of Hong Kong cinema of the late '80s and early '90s, along with the rise in popularity of Cantonese stars like Jet Li, Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, and directors John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Peter Chan. His association with director Wong Kar-Wei in the '90s gave Cheung some of his biggest film successes. They made three films together and Cheung won the Best Actor award at the 1990 Hong Kong Film Awards for his portrayal of a self-hating bully in Wong's Days of Being Wild.

Masculine yet also slightly effeminate, vulnerable yet dangerous, Cheung inspired Time magazine's Richard Corliss to call him, "James Dean with a mean streak, a deeper Johnny Depp." This blurring of traditional gender boundaries gave Leslie Cheung an edge over some of his Cantonese contemporaries. Openly gay, he was fearless in his choice of roles, often playing flamboyantly gay characters at a time when Hong Kong was hardly tolerant of homosexuality.

His most visible success came in the 1993 Oscar nominated film Farewell My Concubine (1993), in which he appeared as the transvestite Douzi, who kills himself at the film's conclusion. In 1994, he portrayed a married music producer who falls in love with a woman playing a man in Peter Chan's screwball comedy, He's A Woman, She's A Man (1994). And his most controversial role came in 1997 when he played a selfish gay man in the dying throes of a relationship in Wong Kar-Wei's Happy Together (1997), a film that opens with a scene of explicit lovemaking between Cheung and co-star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.

In concert, too, Cheung liked to challenge audiences' perceptions of sexual norms. During his 1999 Passion Tour, Cheung grew his hair to waist length and performed in eight outfits designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, including a skirt and high heels. It was about this time that Cheung become more open regarding his sexual orientation, acknowledging his 12-year relationship with banker Daffy Tong Hok-Tak in concert and at awards shows.

Despite his public comfort with his sexuality, Cheung was reportedly an intensely private man, even with his closest friends. During the filming of Inner Senses, rumors surfaced of his erratic behavior on the set. His Inner Senses co-star, Teresa Mo Shun-Kwun, called him "a changed man" after the film wrapped. Last fall, more rumors of his instability surfaced when he dropped out of two films: Hsu Feng's Beautiful Shanghai and Sylvia Chang Ai-Ka's 20, 30, 40.

In interviews with Hong Kong journalists, Tong denies any problems in their relationship. He says that Cheung had battled depression for nearly his entire career and had tried to kill himself with sleeping pills last November. Still, he had spoken to Cheung at about noon on April 1 and had no indication that Cheung would soon leap to his death.

Friends have said that Cheung would stay in character long after a film wrapped. Tragically, he never stepped away from that ledge on the evening of 1 April. There was no ghost to forgive him his sins, no redemption in the arms of a lover. Only the final act in the life of a gifted man whose personal demons finally got the best of him.