One of the most talented representatives of Hong Kong’s golden era (80s to 90s), Leslie Cheung was celebrated throughout the world both as an actor and a singer, and is considered one of the fathers of Cantopop.
His prowess went beyond the borders of Hong Kong, capturing fans in Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea, particularly after his role in John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow”, which became the turning point for his acting career. Later on, his collaborations with directors like Chen Kaige and Wong Kar Wai made him an internationally acclaimed star.
Eventually, his name figured in the first place on the list of the most favorite actors in the 100 years of Chinese cinema, in the third of the Most Iconic Musicians of All Time, and CNN considered him the Most Beautiful Man from Hong Kong Cinema and one of Asia’s 25 Greatest Actors of All Time. However, his life and career came to dramatic end when he died by suicide on April 1, 2003.
Here is a list with his 15 best performances, in reverse order.
15. The Phantom Lover (Ronnie Yu, 1995)
During the 1940s in China, Song Danping built and performed in a theatre, where plays like “Romeo and Juliet” and other classics entranced audiences, making him a huge star. One of his biggest fans was the daughter of a corrupt official named Du Yanyan.
The two of them eventually fell in love despite the girl being betrothed to another man her father had arranged, and they decide to run away together. Alas, her father discovers their plans.
Leslie Cheung plays Song and is once more charming and smooth, and his performance as a theatre actor is quite convincing. Unfortunately, Ronni Yu tried too much to draw from his appearance and his trademark smile, thus resulting in a somewhat disjointed role, which, in the end, compromised Cheung’s overall performance.
14. A Chinese Ghost Story 2 (Siu Tu Ching, 1990)
The sequel to the groundbreaking first part finds Ning returning to his village, which, during his absence, has fallen in desperate times and he soon finds himself imprisoned along with the elder Chu.
Eventually, Ning manages to escape with the elder’s help, and through a misunderstanding, he is acquainted with Autumn, a Taoist monk, and two sisters, Windy and Moon, whose father was framed and is now being transported to be executed. The four of them embark on an adventure against armies, evil monks, and ghosts.
Leslie Cheung reprised his role as Ning and is once more great in both the action and the comic scenes, although the romantic element is clearly toned down in the sequel.
Cheung is present in the two most entertaining scenes of the film. The first occurs when Ning and Autumn try to communicate the counter curse spell solely with eye movement, and the second when he tries to alert a bathing Windy of the presence of a monster.
13. A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo, 1987)
Several years after the events of the first movie, Tse Ho and Tse Kit are undercover police agents, spying on crime boss Lung, who allegedly owns a ship building company. However, the actual head of the syndicate is Lung’s assistant, Ko, who wants to kill him and take his position.
During the attempt, the two brothers save Lung and transfer him to New York, where Mark “Gor” Lee’s twin brother Ken owns a restaurant. The three of them eventually decide to return the former boss to Hong Kong and arrest Ko.
Leslie Cheung is once more the third wheel, behind Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung, in a role that takes advantage of his popularity rather than his acting abilities. However, he partakes in the film’s most touching scene, during his wife’s labor and in one of the most impressive action scenes, when he faces off against a hit man.
12. A Chinese Ghost Story (Siu Tu Ching, 1987)
One of the films that established Tsui Hark’s legend as a producer, “A Chinese Ghost Story” was very popular throughout Asia, made Leslie Cheung very popular in Japan, and initiated a trend for folklore ghost films in the Hong Kong film industry, including two sequels, an animated film, a television series and a 2011 remake.
Leslie Cheung plays Ning Tsai Shen, a tax collector who arrives in a small town to carry out his duties. Unfortunately, he ends up spending the night in the nearby Lan Ro temple. Inside the temple resides a ghost named Nie, whose duty is to enchant travelers so the tree demon she is bound to can consume their souls.
Nevertheless, this time things do not go their way as Ning manages to escape their trap through sheer luck. Furthermore, a peculiar romantic relationship seems to form between him and Nie.
“A Chinese Ghost Story” is another film that draws more from Cheung’s looks than his acting skills, although he is quite believable in his supernatural romance. Furthermore, he showed glimpses of his talent, deftly handling both the horror and the comic parts of the film.
11. A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)
The film tells the story of the complicated relationship between Tse Ho, who works for a triad, his best friend from the organization, Mark “Gor” Lee, and his brother, Tse Kit, who has just graduated from the Police Academy. The situation becomes even more tangled when Ho and Kit’s father is murdered.
Leslie Cheung plays Kit, a rookie cop who blames his brother for their father’s death and for ruining his chances for promotion, due to his criminal past. Their relationship becomes even worse when former comrades of Tse Ho assault Kit.
Although in an obvious secondary role behind Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung still managed to shine in his portrayal of a young man with an obvious grudge. His best moment in the film comes when he finally, and reluctantly, agrees to accompany the other two against the triad.
“A Better Tomorrow” was the film that established him as an actor, continuing the commercial success of his singing career.
10. The Bride with White Hair (Ronny Yu, 1993)
Told in a flashback, this film is based on a 1954 novel by Leung Yu Sang and narrates the “Romeo and Juliet” story of Cho Yi Hang and Lien Ni Chang. The first one is the unwilling successor of the Wu Tang clan and the commander of its forces.
The latter is the top assassin of the rival Supreme Cult, who was raised by evil Siamese twins named Ji Wushuang. The two of them meet in a lake and fall in love despite their respective orders, with Hang having to eliminate the Supreme Cult and Chang having to assassinate him.
Leslie Cheung gives a satisfying performance as the dissatisfied but formidable warrior Cho Yi Hang, who can be fearsome but sensitive at the same time.
Furthermore, he was included in one of the genre’s most graphic sex scene and was persuaded by the producers to compose the film’s main theme, despite his retirement from the music business.
Both of those facts immensely helped the box office outcome of the film, with Cheung’s fans rushing to theatres to listen and watch him, thus making the movie a big commercial success.
9. Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1987)
The film takes place in two different Hong Kong eras. In the first, Chan Chen Pang, who is commonly known as “12th Young Master”, is a playboy who frequents the opium dens in 1934. Eventually he meets Fleur, a high-class courtesan, and the two of them fall in love, in a relationship though that has a tragic outcome.
In 1980, Fleur has returned as a ghost to a city she no longer recognizes and is looking for Chan, who cannot be found. In her despair, she places an advertisement for him and enlists the help of a couple, Ah Chor and Yuen-Ting, to help her find him.
The film drew much from its two protagonist’s looks, although the leading role belongs to Anita Mui, who plays Fleur. Leslie Cheung, who plays Chan, emitted his usual suave that fit his character perfectly, in a role tailored for him. The scene in which he meets Fleur for the first time is astonishing and vibrates with subtle sexual tension emitted from both of the protagonists.