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Phantom Lover: Ode to Leslie Cheung
Hong Kong, April 8, 2003, hlin
On this earth there's a kind of bird without legs.
It must keep flying all its life.
The only time it touches the ground
is when it dies.
Days of Being Wild (1990)
They come from mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore. Fifty at a time, they enter the funeral home, pay silent last respects, white ribbons strapped about their arms. Teen girls, pudgy matrons, men in silk suits. Many hide noses and mouths behind cloth masks, for this is the SARS Age. Outside, those who patiently wait their turn are caught in the encompassing gloom of a spring shower. Eyes are rubbed red with tears, heavy with pent-up sorrow. They clutch signs: pleadings of Why? and avowals of Deepest Sympathy, Miss You Forever, a Star Forever. The word forever has a particular force today. Youth is forever, beauty is forever. You were both, and yet you are gone. For a city wracked by disease, mired in an economic slump, staring down cultural irrelevance, this is the final swan dive.
And yet, royalty is on the scene. The guest list of friends is a roll call of once and future Hong Kong cinema. Chow Yun-Fat. Tony Leung. Stephen Chow. Carina Lau. Anthony Wong. Anita Yuen. Jacky Cheung. And of course Anita Mui, the Far East’s answer to Madonna, someone who knows a thing or two about the diva life, your best friend, all but stricken with grief. So many beautiful faces from indelible films.
You specialized in living and dying glamorously onscreen. You prided yourself on perfect takes and dramatic exits. You would not have been displeased. No movie star farewell has ever been quite like this, this horribly beautiful apotheosis of tragedy and the passing of history.
* * *
Tonight is the same as many nights: The twinkle of laser lights, your arms thrust to the heavenly spotlights, your dancers matching your every move, so desperately wanting to be you. You sail through myriad costume changes, waist-low wigs, Jean Paul Gaultier dresses, navel-baring tanktops, all part of the big tease calculated to whip up the fans. In Hong Kong’s feminized pop realm of sequins, floppy shirts, and Vegas choreography, you are the one authentic female.
You have been bestowed the honorific nickname Gor Gor (big brother), but remain perpetually youthful at age 43 -- still the baby cheeks, the whiplike brows, the waist of a girl, the moony eyes that go from self-satisfied to tormented in no time flat. And of course those nervous, abashed smiles, so rare and therefore so precious, the overbite and slightly crooked teeth reminding us that you are indeed human, and all the more lovable for it.
Your name redolent of tragic heroes (stolen from Gone with the Wind’s Leslie Howard), you are the last diva. Like the best of them, you are magnetic and unreachable: needy and removed, welcoming and dismissive. In Hong Kong’s hyperstylized universe of music and cinema, you are the ultimate hyperstylist, a compilation of James Dean, Sinatra, and Hedwig. Most importantly, even as throaty women scream, you cultivate the enigma of Leslie -- Are you straight? Gay? Somewhere in between? Sometimes you politely deflect the question with that smile, and at others you wave it off brusquely. Attract and repel. Any show-biz legend worth her salt knows: Leave them hanging, wanting more.
You are not a great vocalist, but the swoon and croon are your secret weapons, and you have the gift of interpretation. Pre-fab Canto ballads become suave paeans to love; chestnuts such as "A Thousand Dreams of You" and "White Christmas" are stoked to a fine glow. Asian audiences do not dance, even in Toronto, but they shimmy and shake for you.
"I love you, Leslie!" someone shrieks.
Your reply: "I love you too, whether you're a boy or a girl."
* * *
It was a struggle early on: Hong Kong cinema, with its overemphatic joys, the drawn-out slapstick and action, had no clue what to do with you. Chow Yun-Fat could add flair and dramatic weight to even the lowliest routines, but you were a hot house flower, wilting into the scenery when gunfights and urine jokes took over.
But then came, of all people, director John "God of Bullets" Woo and A Better Tomorrow. In the space of 94 minutes, you grow up before our eyes. At film’s beginning, you are the gawky kid brother, the fresh-faced cop, and then comes the revelation: the older brother you idolize is a gangster. Pouty with righteousness, you scream at him: "Don’t address me by my name! You call me ‘Sir’!" Never before or since has Woo forged such a perfect homoerotic triangle. In the center, your tormented older brother; in the far corner, Chow Yun-Fat as his hitman buddy, machismo and virility defined; and in this corner, you, as the counterbalance of sisterly conscience. And what a finale, as Chow embraces you just as his brains are blown out, and blood rains on your face. What a face, languid with exhaustion and moral defeat, and still so pretty, so hopeful. The boy has traded in his unbearable lightness; the man has emerged.
You function best in historical dramas and comedies, for something about you harkens to a different age -- the petite frame, the soft voice, the theatrical sighs, the well-timed thunderbolts of intensity. You hit stride with classic period kung fu comedies (A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)) and classic ghost stories (Rouge (1988)). The latter is a dress rehearsal for the immortal Farewell My Concubine (1993), with its evocation of the decadent ’30s, the lives of spoiled young Masters and courtesans, the allure of doomed love. Caught in an opium haze, your delicate features heightened with Peking Opera paint, you clutch your lover to your bosom, the sensualist as artist. For local audiences, this is alien territory, a rocket back to the brittle snowflake days of vintage Chinese dramas -- but with a postmodern twist, as the ghosts of tragic heroines past have been reincarnated in you, the pansexual Peter Pan.
* * *
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