LGBT icon and Cantopop star Leslie Cheung’s 5 most iconic film roles – from A Better Tomorrow to Farewell My Concubine

One of Cantopop’s Four Heavenly Kings – alongside Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok and Leon Lai – Leslie Cheung was a sensational singer, adored across Asia for songs like Sleepless Night (無心睡眠). A fantastic live performer when on stage belting out his hits, it is perhaps little wonder that Cheung would develop into a world-renowned actor, too.
The Hong Kong idol won a number of acting awards during his all too brief life and even if his more commercial roles weren’t the sort to earn award nominations, Cheung’s riveting performances have left an indelible mark in the memory of film fans.
In celebration of what would have been Cheung’s 64th birthday, on September 12, here are five of his most iconic roles.
A Better Tomorrow (1986)
Cheung had starred in a number of films before this John Woo action classic – most notably Patrick Tam’s Nomad, for which he earned a best actor nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards – but it was this turn as Sung Tse-kit that was his first truly iconic performance. Brother to Sung Tse-ho (Ti Lung), Cheung shines as an idealistic youngster looking to join the police force, indignant that his brother was once a gangster.
Kit’s refusal to believe his brother is mending his ways could have made him a hated character, but Cheung plays the role with such youthful, fiery zeal that it’s impossible not to sympathise with his point of view. As he slowly realises the error of his ways – not to mention the tragic events of A Better Tomorrow II – Kit becomes a lovable character, one almost as popular as Chow Yun-fat’s iconic shooter, Mark Lee.
Rouge (1987)
One of Cheung’s most popular films, Rouge saw him act opposite his friend and fellow Canto-pop idol, Anita Mui. A seductive pairing if there ever was one, the two play star-crossed lovers connected over time and death. Mui is suitably haunting as the spectral figure looking for her lost love, but Cheung is equally impressive as a lover both wildly romantic and sensitive, yet also cowardly and timid. Steadfast friends in real life, and a dream pairing on-screen, the untimely passing of Mui and Cheung in 2003 adds extra piquancy to their performances together in this romantic blockbuster.
Days of Being Wild (1991)
Hugely popular with critics – though initially less adored by the general public – Cheung won his first best actor award in this memorable early film by director Wong Kar-wai. In contrast to the delicate soul portrayed in Rouge, here Cheung is an utter playboy, Yuddy, a man who picks up and discards women as if they were cheap toys.
Uncaring of the pain he inflicts on the women in his life, Yuddy is another character that, portrayed by a less capable actor, would be easy to hate. Yet Cheung brings so much charm and charisma to the role that it’s easy to see why women would fall for him, and displays just enough vulnerability to demonstrate why we ought to feel sorry for Yuddy. Cheung’s quips about being “one-minute friends” and “the bird with no legs” are unforgettable – as much thanks to Wong’s brilliant script as Cheung’s impeccable delivery.
Farewell, My Concubine (1993)
Arguably Cheung’s most internationally famous performance came in this, his collaboration with mainland director Chen Kaige, which became the first Chinese-language film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
A rich tale that chronicles the history of two Peking opera performers – Douzi (Cheung) and Shitou (Zhang Fengyi) – against the backdrop of a changing China, Cheung is outstanding as a performer who develops feelings for his heterosexual friend.
The effeminate mannerisms Cheung lends Douzi highlight his skill as an actor. Meanwhile, his sense of possession regarding Shitou – his counterpart in many operas – and the savagery he displays towards the woman who disrupts their relationship, helps demonstrate Cheung’s tremendous versatility. A classic of Chinese cinema, it’s hard to imagine any other actor inhabiting this role as powerfully as Leslie Cheung did.
He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (1994)
The most low-key film and performance on this list, He’s a Woman, She’s a Man is none the less a minor classic and one of Cheung’s most memo…