Recommends: Top 15 Leslie Cheung Performances
‘I used to think there was a kind of bird that, once born, would keep flying until death. The fact is that the bird hasn't gone anywhere. It was dead from the beginning.’ – Yuddy in Days of Being Wild (Wong, 1990)
I love Leslie Cheung. There is nothing else I can do but love him. A Cantopop star who owned the stage with his flamboyant presence and style, legendary actor and LGBTQ+ icon, he was a man of many talents. Somehow he encapsulated something that I have yet top see any actor manage; The-Boy-Next-Door, the Lothario, the Tortured Soul. He wore it all. A beautiful, ethereal entity, Cheung was enigmatic, cute yet utterly enthralling, a devastatingly vulnerable creature that engulfs the screen even now.
Hong Kong (and beyond) was shaken when he tragically took his life in 2003. Although his career was cut short but it was anything but fruitful. He was adored by fans that gathered in the streets on the day of his funeral, and meant a lot to many. Even for the time, he was bold; an openly bisexual man who maintained a long term relationship with Daffy Tong, he was always open about his sexuality even when the media and masses desperately tried to pigeon-hole.
'I believe that a good actor would be androgynous and ever-changing…' – Leslie Cheung
Leslie Cheung was destined to be a star. His childhood was infused with Hollywood. The youngest of ten children perhaps it offered escapism from a troubled home life. His father was a tailor to many iconic figures including Alfred Hitchcock and Marlon Brando to name a few. This had a lasting impact; he was inspired to take the name ‘Leslie as his stage name due to its androgynous origins and from the wonderful British actor Leslie Howard, whom he was a fan.
With 1978 the year of his screen debut, he would start out in minor roles of boy-next-door, on TV and film, honing a music career all the while. Low-budget productions and wuxia cinema followed and he was always the brightest thing in these early appearances; 1982’s Nomad is still worth a watch simply for his presence. As more serious roles came along, under the direction of brilliant filmmakers such as Chen Kaige, Wong Kar-wai and Stanley Kwan, Cheung cemented his place in the canon, immortalising his life and talent on screen.
Leslie Cheung was an unshakable force, though I don’t believe he ever truly knew it. ‘I don’t change, I don’t yield and I don’t negotiate. I believe in honesty, sincerity and beauty. If one has to give in for favours, then life is pointless, meaningless and too hypocritical’ Cheung was quoted. This we get the sense of even with his very last films. He grew and matured with each film. His world-weariness in his final roles a familiar and haunting reflection of humanity, an honest glimpse into the mind of a man who could sink into his roles yet bring so much of himself to his audience. He was open and raw. It is this that makes his films so watchable; his vulnerability.
It’s why I love him.
With this list, I am aware of familiar favourites. But I would also like to throw in some films that I had plenty of fun with, that capture Cheung’s diversity across his long career. We’re not always going to be talking about masterpieces. That’s okay.
15. Temptress Moon (Dir. Chen Kaige, 1996)
Sexy, sexy. Let’s start sexy. Cheung and Gong Li reunited following Chen’s masterpiece, 1993’s Farewell, My Concubine (we’ll get to that later), for another not-so-epic from the Chinese filmmaker. An inferior film for sure, but a powerful pairing of two masters with the addition of the sublime cinematography of Christopher Doyle really does do the trick. Temptress Moon is still very watchable.
A crime syndicate, a family interweaved with tyranny rules Shanghai. When the leader of the family steps down, his sister takes his place only to reconnect mysteriously with her childhood friend; betrayal and romance ensues. Sounds vague; I had to be. With Gong Li and Leslie Cheung sparks fly, longing looks and strenuous family drama is made incredibly entertaining even with a whole lot happening. Overall, the film would have been even more disappointing if not for the magic of Cheung. His allure and charm with his co-stars is always a delight.
14. The Kid (Dir. Jacob Cheung, 1999)
It’s just Leslie Cheung being cute with a child. That is half the reason why I included it here. The other half is he is really good in the role. You don’t have to suspend disbelief to witness that. For some of the other plot elements you do though. What does it really matter, when Leslie Cheung delivers a gentle and mature performance as the loving foster-father figure?
A woman, when her husband abandons her, leaves their baby son in a luxury yacht with the hope that the owners are a wealthy couple who can provide a more stable environment for her child. However, the owner (Cheung) has lost everything that same day. He struggles, when finding the boy, to fill the role of parent but as time passes, they grow to live a fulfilling life of small means together in a shabby apartment. Four years later, the woman returns, now a successful business woman, seeking out her child. The audacity.
13. The Bride with the White Hair (Dir. Ronny Yu, 1993)
Dark and intense, a violent forbidden romance throbs at the heart of this stunning film. A cult classic, Yu’s film is a violent and engaging tale exploring mad cults and supernatural evil. Yu also delivered my other niche obsession: The Phantom Lover (Ronny Yu, 1995) – It’s a Hong Kong Phantom of the Opera. That’s it. Without Yu, I would be deprived some of Leslie Cheung’s sexier and bizarre credit. And Yu's lighting and colour palette is rich and delicious, kind of reminiscent in the campy luxuriousness of early Joel Schumacher.
An unwilling successor to the Wu-Tang Clan throne and commander of the army, pitted against an evil cult begins to fall for the warrior assassin of his enemy. Kind of a wild ride this one. I don’t love this film; more so I love the look and concept. That excess of Hong Kong fantasy action cinema is always an absolute riot. But what keeps me around is Leslie (this is a bit of theme here). And he is great. Immediately vulnerable, he still permeates a strength and magnetism as the troubled warrior, something only Cheung can do. Somehow, he makes it work.
12. Once a Thief (Dir. John Woo, 1991)
In the west John Woo is known for blood-spattered action and (‘I’m gonna take his’) Face Off… well that’s how I know of his work. It was by visiting his Hong Kong roots that I came to appreciate him in a whole new light. Weirdly enough, one of his most refreshing films is Once a Thief. A delightful; romp, it is not his most well-known collaborations with the great Cheung, but it is tamer than some of his more gory stories.
Cheung is positively dandy alongside Woo favourite Chow Yun-fat, as international art thieves. With their female friend, the trio partake in all kinds of mischief; that is until a love triangle emerges between them, threatening to sabotage their next job and worse their friendship. Such a breezy watch and thin on bloodbaths, Cheung absolutely steals my heart (who am I kidding; I handed it to him all the way back in Being Wild). This kind of light viewing is perfect to show off his cheeky charm and comedic chops.
11. He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (Dir. Peter Ho-Sun Chan & Chi Lee, 1994)
Speaking of comedy, how about some sexuality-panic romance… That classic genre; She’s The Man incited some iconic jitters, toeing the line was the never quite so on point as in Disney’s legendary Mulan (1998). He’s a Woman, She’s a Man comes pretty close. Some of it is dated a little, other elements only hold up because they are handled so well by Cheung himself. It’s also kind of silly. But Carina Lau is there too so it scores even more points. As Hong Kong Rom-com’s go, it still hooks ya.
Wing (Anita Yeun) is obsessed with pop singer Rose (Lau) and her infamous music producer/songwriter boyfriend Sam (Cheung), who has helped shape the career of his girlfriend. Their relationship is somewhat strained by years of collaboration and success. Wanting a new challenge, he decides to scout for the talents of a male singer who he can shape into the next big pop star. Desperate to meet her idols, Wing disguises herself as a man only to win miraculously. However, as time passes, she and Sam begin to have feelings for one another, despite Wing’s secret. A total farce, a suspension of disbelief of epic proportions is needed but the film is a wild ride from start to finish with fabulous chemistry amongst its leads.
10. Moonlight Express (Dir. Daniel Lee, 1999)
This little known film is also a little gem – certainly during my latest Cheung binge. A fascinating concept, Moonlight Express merges Japanese and Hong Kong culture through romance, police corruption and doppelgängers. When Japanese Hitomi’s fiancé passes away following a car accident, she travels to Hong Kong where he worked to finalise some of his business. There she runs into a jaded undercover cop, Kar-bo. In a drug-bust gone wrong he is betrayed and forced to flee; but not before his intimate encounter with Hitomi has her hanging onto his coat tails because… he looks like her dead fiancé, after all. Despite language barriers, they begin to form a deep bond, as they process their personal sorrows.
Does it work all the time? No. Some of it even gets kind of weird. But when it does, it’s a delicious concoction showing off the best of Cheung’s talents. In a dual role, he maintains charm, tortured machismo and a weariness that lends much to his latter career performances. Plus a surprise (and sexy) supporting role from Michelle Yeoh is a weird kind of intermission in the film, a semi-strained addition to the plot. I’m willing to forgive it all. The tiny nods to Wong Kar-wai, the culture explosion and the beautiful performances hold it together.
9. Ashes of Time (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, 1994)
‘You’ve got it low again!’ My brain grumbled to my heart as I formed this list.
‘What of it?’ My heart tearfully replied, ‘Can’t I think for myself sometimes? Even if I’m all valves, all blood, all pulse?’
And what followed was an intellectual emotional debate of titanic proportions to define the decade. On my Wong Kar-wai list, I had this low too. I never quite gelled with it. Even with the contribution of Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Tony Leung Chiu-wai (Big and Little Tony as they are referred to in Hong Kong), Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Jackie Cheung and Carina Lau… Whatever could I be snorting to regard it in such a way?
The cast is to die for. The plot is hard to follow. It’s beautiful and yet slow; a prequel to the novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong, imagining the characters young. I may revisit it again someday and maybe I will be shook by how wrong I was. But one thing I do know; Leslie Cheung is beautiful in this. Wong, in association with Christopher Doyle knew just how to encapsulate Cheung’s enigmatic melancholy, his sensual vulnerability all the while showing off his talent. He’s a dream to behold. As Doyle fondly said of the actor in an interview with National Geographic when recalling his various collaborations with him, ‘Leslie is a beautiful person… and Leslie wants to let you know how beautiful he is. I don’t think I did anything, I think I just stood back and enjoyed the beauty of Leslie.’ Well, Doyle is understating his visual marvel. But there is no denying that his method, based in trust, always brought out the best of Cheung’s divine aesthetic
8. A Better Tomorrow (Dir. John Woo, 1986)
Despite a multitude of film and television roles a long with an established Cantopop career prior to John Woo’s classic action film, Cheung had not been on the radar with western audiences yet. I would argue that this was attention-grabber. Woo became everyone’s favourite Hong Kong director, revelling in excess and violence like none other and shining the spotlight on not only Cheung but the brilliant Chow Yun-fat in his breakout role. Nuanced, they rarely are, but Woo portrays brotherhood and blood like none other. A Better Tomorrow captures this best of all. With it, Cheung was able to play on his boy-next-door good looks whilst sinking his teeth into a far more complicated role, made all the more interesting by his characters bitter shift towards troubled vengeance.
Inspiring various sequels and spinoffs and breaking box office records upon release, this classic series follows the complicated betrayal between brothers. A Triad member, Ho, runs a counterfeiting operation of American dollar bills with his wiley accomplice Mark Lee (Chow), hiding his life of crime from his younger brother, Kit (Cheung), who has graduated high school and entered the police academy. In a tragic twist, their sickly father is caught in violent altercation with an enemy triad after begging Ho to leave his life of crime behind. With his dying breath, he begs Kit to forgive his brother’s criminal involvement. However, he is unable to see beyond it, blaming Ho for his death.
7. The Eagle Shooting Heroes (Dir. Jeffrey Lau, 1993)
Controversial – I leave Ashes of Time lower and revel in its sibling film instead. The Hong Kong Hot Shots, penned by Wong during the long-delayed filming of his feature, helmed by Jet Tone Productions co-producer Jeffrey Lau, in theory it’s an artistically inferior piece of art. But it’s funny as hell. With the same cast, all the Tony’s in place, Shooting Heroes is a star-studded riot. Here’s the thing; it’s rumoured to be cover up the fact that Wong was massively overscheduled and over-budget on his production and the studio needed to recoup money over the New Year period. The film was thrown together. But it doesn’t matter when it all just works.
How different they all are to their counterparts in the stoic Ashes of Time. Cheung is one word; adorable. Shout out to my sister who, having never seen Leslie Cheung in anything at all beforehand, fell totally in love with him in this. That is the power of Cheung. He shines even in madness, in an ocean of stars. The cast are simply fantastic. They ham it up, have fun and make for a quotable adventure.
6. Viva Erotica (Dir. Yee Tung-Shing and Law Chi-Leung, 1996)
Maybe I put this too high considering other performances. Or maybe I am right and Cheung manifests some brilliant nuance in the role of a washed up director in need of his big break who agrees to make an erotic film. A strain on his relationship with his girlfriend (Karen Mok), he dreams of making it big all the while obsessed with creating a decent erotic film, troubled all the more by the mobsters backing the production. They have selected his leading lady (Shu Qi) but she’s more than a little inexperienced in front of the camera. To get a great performance out of her is like getting blood out of a stone.
A film homage, a parody, a self-aware category III film (infamous in Hong Kong as many a title under this label borders on straight-up porn whilst some simply include taboo themes), Viva Erotica is far smarter than it appears. The fictional porn film offers an unexpected space for the director to exhibit his skill as he manages to get sincere and powerful performances from his cast. The film relishes in fabulous and sometimes ridiculous set-pieces, well-read in film language and history. Its little nods are fun to spot. More so, super saucy, it is. Shu Qi somehow is rather convincing as an insufferable upcoming actress who scored her role due to her relationship with the mobster benefactors. Her chemistry with Cheung is pretty spicy though. His character is manic, hard-working and talented, circumstances have hindered him greatly. Cheung is his usual attractive (duh, at this point), but he brings forth a helplessness and understated comedic flare. And those dream sequences; he just knew how to... stare.
5. A Chinese Ghost Story (Dir. Ching Siu-Tung, 1987)
Ugh, I love Hong Kong fantasy horror. They have that marvellous playfulness that Hollywood set aside as CGI and bigger budgets began to creep in by the mid-nineties to the detriment of some of their best storylines. Without rubbery puppets, elaborate sets and in-scene stunts, we would never have the most iconic stories; E.T, The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, The Lost Boys, Evil Dead… I could go on and on. The practical effects are great. It feels organic. Hong Kong could display the best of this in their OTT wuxia and action cinema. It’s not all good, but it is almost always a fun and particular delight to the eyes.
Cool; mini-rant over. Now onto Cheung. He is so loveable in this first entry in the classic romance saga. Followed by some okay sequels, they still hold up years on. How can Cheung play a debt-collector and be so endearing? How can he and Joey Wong make for such an adorable couple, even as he fights to free her soul from eternal damnation? A little sexy, funny and fantastical, A Chinese Ghost Story is great; I would urge all to fall for this love story between an indebted bailiff and a ghost.
4. Rouge (Dir. Stanley Kwan, 1987)
There were some on screen pairings that just pulsed with chemistry. Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung were one such. Sultry with longing, the pair could turn the chastest of exchanges into something borderline scandalous. Rouge was where they flexed this. And they’re beautiful together as tortured lovers, made all the more sparkling by their off-screen friendship. The two actors may be shrouded in the tragedy of their early deaths, but their legacies stand strong.
In the thirties, a songstress of one of Hong Kong’s Flower Houses enraptures a wealthy heir and the pair fall deeply in love. Enchanted with one another, they agree to a suicide pact, to enter eternity together. Fifty years on, the songstress’s ghost appears to a newspaperman. She wishes to place and ad in the paper, reaching out to her lost love, who never followed her into the afterlife as he had promised. Magical, right? It really is.
3. Happy Together (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, 1997)
The top three is predictable. But predictability and sense are strolling hand in hand here. These are his greatest performances; the ones that have immortalised in the cinematic canon. What am I supposed to do about that? Leslie Cheung stars opposite one of my absolute favourites, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, in my third spot choice. A kinetic endurance test, Happy Together is a slow, agonising break-up between two men from Hong Kong who moved to Argentina seeking a better life. Their love is not enough; often abusive and cruel, jaded and jealous, the two have never felt so alone in the foreign land they found themselves on.
Infused with the uncertainty of the time, on the cusp of the Hong Kong handover of 1997, especially felt throughout the LGBTQ+ community, Wong was able to tell, through clever editing and unpredictable storytelling a startling yet human story. He made it up as he went along, took months of sporadic filming and rehearsals to complete, his two actors didn’t know what they were trying to make. Neither did he. This is another project (much like his work on In the Mood for Love in 2000) in which Wong utilised his actors beautiful minds to craft engaging, authentic characters. The plot really is simple, the people aren’t. And that is all thanks to Leung and Cheung’s powerful and thoughtful performances, stand-out talents of Nineties Hong Kong cinema. Their chemistry is palpable. It’s impossible to hate anyone in Happy Together. Their loneliness is uncomfortably familiar.
2. Days of Being Wild (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, 1990)
The clock is ticking, Maggie Cheung is toting crates of empty cola bottles, and Leslie Cheung slinks into her world. His voice, the hint of gravel in his soft tone. There’s no denying, as they watch the clock, feel the heat in the air between them that they are one minute friends. It’s an absolute fact. And soon they are lovers, entangled in bed sheets in sixties Hong Kong. Then as soon as it has begun, it is over and she is left yearning for the man who broke her heart. If anyone is allowed to break Maggie Cheung’s heart (and in saying this, Carina Lau’s too) then it is Leslie Cheung. He’s stunning as he does it.
A troubled playboy, Cheung meanders through Wong’s sophomore feature (utterly hypnotic after its beautiful Criterion restoration), stealing hearts and agonising over the estranged relationship with his guardian, searching for his true mother. His life is one of decadence and comfort, whiling away hours in idleness and pleasure, never really connecting with anyone. It’s the role that captured the deep melancholy prevalent in Cheung’s performances, best brought out under the direction of Wong. He’s beautifully miserable, somehow sexy and heart-breaking, a self-destructive lost soul.
1. Farewell My Concubine (Dir. Chen Kaige, 1993)
I have seen it but once. Yet I cannot forget. It is a true epic. I thought by writing about it, following the first viewing all the way back in 2020, that I would be able to move on. That article was long too… What a fool I was. You don't get over this movie. It is THE Leslie Cheung performance. The face, the images are seared in my mind; with the blue night and the blade, the tear perfectly rolling down his pale cheek, make-up smeared across his face as he lays prostrate in the cab… he does so little and yet says so much.
Dieyi is sold to the Beijing Opera House as a young boy and brutalised under harrowing conditions to conform to his assigned female role; ‘I am by nature a boy, not a girl...’ he mistakenly utters over and over, unable to accurately recite the lines from Dreaming of a World Outside the Nunnery. Tradition expects him to become a woman, even against his will. He befriends another boy, Xiaolou, the other master act in the troupe, a haughty and masculine figure and a lifelong friendship forms against the tumultuous political revolution that shook China in the early twentieth century. Over time, Dieyi’s feeling become romantic yet unreciprocated, unchanging in their dependency in one another. Their relationship is strained when Xiaolou falls for a prostitute, Juxian, not only coming between them, but their art also.
It’s an eerie, unsettling and epic piece of film. Remembered as much for its haunting scenes, shocking politically charged tale and controversy on its home turf as it was for its stellar performances from leading players, Cheung, Gong li and Zhang Fengyi, there is nothing quite so powerful to come from the filmmaker. Spanning fifty years, and running at nearly three hours long, not a minute is wasted. A mammoth story, it remains utterly grounded even as it grapples with a history, art, sexuality and tradition and never has Cheung been so stunning. It was a role made for him. If you want more ramblings on this film, check out my review of it 'The World is Not What it Used to Be...': Farewell My Concubine. Here I am able to really break it all down, the behind the scenes, the aforementioned controversy, the casting, the awards, the context…. Otherwise I could go on and on.
But Leslie is eternal. Farewell My Concubine is a huge reason for that. Is it his most acutely self-aware role? Possibly. His character is conniving and vain, his childhood robbed and his life now formed by his persona. He lives to perform and please, has some kind of power in that world that he understands; made unstable by the ever-shifting political, social and personal climate he grapples with. Yet Cheung is also sweetly helpless, a wandering soul with grace and poise. The mask cracks, yet he stands tall. It is pure magic watching Cheung. It’s his film through and through. And for me, it is his very greatest performance.
Well, there you go. Fifteen films to try out with the lovely Leslie Cheung. I hope you find a new favourite and let me know if there are any you would add! Happy viewing.
‘Maybe I have a different lifestyle to the rest of the crowd but I don’t want to give so much of me. I will only give all of myself in my work.’ – Leslie Cheung