Thursday, November 4, 2010

THE EAST IS RED #16: Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing

by Lisa Morton

Ask any American or European horror fan who their favorite horror actor is, and they’ll undoubtedly offer up everything from a classic Universal star (Lugosi, Karloff) to a B-movie scream queen (Brinke Stevens, Linnea Quigley). A Mexican film buff might mention German Robles or Abel Salazar. But ask any Asian moviegoer, and don’t be surprised if all you get is a perplexed look, because the tradition of the horror star doesn’t really seem to exist in any of the Asian film industries.
There are a multitude of reasons, undoubtedly. Genre is more fluid in Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean films – one movie can mash together science fiction, extreme gore, and social satire (TOKYO GORE POLICE), or combine action, horror, romance, and period fantasy (SWORDSMAN 2). And perhaps because the talent pool is smaller (Hong Kong was still a colony when it was cranking out over 400 films a year in the late ‘80s), actors are less likely to be pigeon-holed. Maybe they’ve just never made as many horror movies as we have. Or maybe they didn’t need to market certain actors as horror stars in order to sell them to audiences.
One of the side benefits of this for Asian horror movies is that the same top actors who win awards for intense dramas and historical epics can also be found in the region’s horror films and thrillers. Take, for example, the career of the late Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing. If you think the biggest Asian star of the last twenty years was Chow Yun-fat, Jet Li, or even Jackie Chan, think again. Cheung was not only Hong Kong’s biggest pop singer for over twenty years (he was sometimes called “the Elvis of Asia”), he was also its top actor. In a poll of the top 100 Hong Kong films, 4 of the top 5 starred Leslie Cheung; he was routinely nominated for Asian film awards, became the first Hong Kong actor to star in a mainland Chinese film (Chen Kaige’s FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE, which brought Cheung close to international stardom), and he starred for virtually every one of Hong Kong’s most famous directors, including John Woo, Tsui Hark, Stanley Kwan, and Wong Kar-wai. In the Hong Kong film and music industries he was known simply as “Gor-gor”, or “older brother”.

In 1987, Cheung took the lead in what is undoubtedly the most famous Hong Kong horror film ever made: A CHINESE GHOST STORY, directed by Ching Siu-tung and produced (with lots of hands-on fervor) by Tsui Hark. In this spectacular historical dark fantasy, Cheung stars as Ning, a timid and poor debt collector who is forced one night to stay in an abandoned temple, where he narrowly avoids a zombie attack and finally encounters Hsiao-ting, a seductive female ghost. Later, he enlists a rowdy swordsman, Yen, to help defeat the evil “Matron” holding Hsiao-ting, and they finally free her spirit so she can reincarnate. Along the way there’s a tree demon with a massive tongue, an enchanted pavilion full of lovelies, and a trip to hell, all told in garish colors and frenetic editing that make Sam Raimi look positively depressed by comparison.
In A CHINESE GHOST STORY, Cheung is sweet, slightly bumbling, and easily frightened; the ecstatic look on his face when he receives his first kiss (underwater, yet) from Joey Wang’s gorgeous Hsiao-ting is darn near comic genius. Cheung’s Ning doesn’t have an easy analog in western cinema – he’s neither as outright comedic as Bill Murray in GHOSTBUSTERS nor a simple gender-flipped slasher heroine.

That same year saw Cheung in another, very different ghost movie: Stanley Kwan’s ROUGE. ROUGE, which tells of a terrible love affair between a dissipated, wealthy young man (Cheung) and a talented courtesan (the late, brilliant Anita Mui) is really not a horror film, but rather employs the tropes of the ghost story to comment on a decadent society long gone by. Cheung is beautiful, languid, and decadent in ROUGE, as far from his performance as the gentle Ning as one actor could possibly get.
In 1993, Cheung portrayed a gruff, stubbled swordsman in Ronny Yu’s astounding period horror/fantasy THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR, co-starring with Brigitte Lin, who had recently become a sensation for starring in Tsui Hark’s lunatic SWORDSMAN 2 as “Asia the Invincible”, a warrior who castrated himself to achieve ultimate power and wound up as a beautiful woman. In BRIDE, Lin plays a warrior woman who has been groomed from childhood to become a killing machine; the film includes such frantic scenes of violence as the Bride dismembering an entire troop of soldiers. But when she meets up with Cheung’s Yi-hang, the film becomes a pitch black (and very sexy) love story.

Two years later, Cheung worked with Ronny Yu again when he played Song Dang-ping in THE PHANTOM LOVER, a remake of the classic 1937 Chinese horror film SONG AT MIDNIGHT, which was itself a riff on THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. This time around Cheung got to be the monster – the horribly scarred Song, who now watches over his young protégé. Cheung’s performance – like Michael Crawford’s famed portrayal of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s onstage Phantom – was drenched in as much pathos as horror.
Cheung’s two most typical horror portrayals came late in his career, in a pair of films directed by Law Chi-leung: 2000’s DOUBLE TAP, and 2002’s INNER SENSES. In DOUBLE TAP Cheung finally gets to go psycho: His Rick Pang is a crack shot who has mastered the “double tap”, or the ability to fire two bullets into exactly the same place on a target. After Rick is forced to kill in self-defense, people start turning up dead in Hong Kong, all victims of a double tap. Rick is soon engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse with Miu, a cop who is Rick’s only equal at shooting. Cheung – whose most recent films had included Wong Kar-wai’s HAPPY TOGETHER, in which he played a narcissistic gay lover, and THE KID, wherein he starred as a sympathetic, poor young father of an adopted boy – gave an intense and frightening performance as Rick.
INNER SENSES was Cheung’s last film, and it’s a thoughtful, disturbing, and melancholy finale to Cheung’s career. Cheung plays Dr. Jim Law, a dedicated young psychiatrist whose disbelief in ghosts is sorely tested when he begins treating Yan (Karena Lam), a young woman who claims to see ghosts. The film debunks supernatural beliefs, but goes on to suggest that the workings of the human mind can be far more terrifying anyway, as Law cures Yan, but then succumbs to the demons of his own past. Cheung gives a performance here of tremendous emotional intensity (he earned Best Actor nominations from several Asian awards), and the film is unquestionably one of the most interesting to emerge from the Asian ghost movie bonanza of the 2000s.

INNER SENSES, however, became famous for far sadder reasons (and sorry, this is a big spoiler alert): The film ends with Law standing poised atop a skyscraper, desperate and despondent, crying out, “I’ve never been happy”. In real life, Leslie Cheung leapt from the 24th floor of a Hong Kong skyscraper on April 1, 2003, leaving a note that began with the word “Depression”; at 46, he was still one of the most mesmerizing and handsome stars in Hong Kong, and his suicide sent shock waves through all of Asia. Cheung’s fans were quick to note the strange similarities between his last moments on film and his final moments on earth. In retrospect, it’s heartbreaking to watch Cheung’s fine work INNER SENSES and imagine what raw nerves he was wrenching wide open for the screen.
In a career that also included acclaimed performances in John Woo’s A BETTER TOMORROW, Wong Kar-wai’s DAYS OF BEING WILD and ASHES OF TIME, Patrick Tam’s seminal New Wave film NOMAD, and Peter Chan’s gender-switching comedy HE’S A WOMAN, SHE’S A MAN, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing also played the monster, the psycho, the skeptic, the victim, and the stalwart hero. Asian cinema may have no Christopher Lee, no Evelyn Ankers, no Robert Englund…but with stars like Leslie Cheung switching off effortlessly from horror to drama to comedy to tragedy and back to horror again, the movies haven’t exactly suffered.



--Lisa Morton