8. Once a Thief (John Woo, 1991)
Three orphans named Joe, James and Red Bean grow up together under the tutelage of their adopted father, Chow, who educates them in the ways of high-end burglary. Unavoidably, the three of them grow up to do exactly that, and eventually reach a point where they are considered as the number one enemy for museums and galleries all over the world. Moreover, Joe and Red Bean are lovers, a relationship though that does not seem to bother James at all.
However, during a heist that went terribly wrong due to a double-cross, Joe seemingly dies in a car accident. The rest of the gang finds solace in one another but eventually Joe returns, enormously complicating things between them.
Leslie Cheung plays James, in one of his first roles that proved that he could act in films besides action flicks. His performance during both the comic and the romantic scenes is wonderful and his chemistry with John Woo and Chow Yun Fat, who plays Joe, is quite evident. This particular notion is best depicted in the scene where the two of them are escaping a castle by avoiding infrared sensors and in the various scenes where they fight.
7. The Eagle Shooting Heroes (Jeffrey Lau, 1993)
Adapted from the same book as “Ashes of Time”, this particular film is actually a slapstick parody of the novel, despite the fact that included the same fantastic cast as Wong Kar Wai’s film, although in different roles.
The plot is quite complex with many different stories taking place at the same time and occasionally intermingling. Ouyang Feng plots with his cousin to overthrow the King, and they begin by trying to take out his daughter, Third Princess, who is cooperating with Huang Yao Shi to discover a powerful martial arts scroll. On their heels is Huang’s Sweetheart and on her heels, Hung Chi, a beggar king.
Leslie Cheung plays Huang Yao Shi, who additionally has to fend off the advances of a homosexual man. In one of the few roles that not only did not take advantage of his looks but instead demanded from him to deconstruct his image, Cheung did so wonderfully and in accordance to the general slapstick fashion of the film.
6. He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (Peter Chan, 1994)
Wing is a devoted groupie of both Rose, a pop singer, and her boyfriend named Sam, a record producer and songwriter. The latter, having helped Rose achieve international acclaim, is now in search of a male artist to do the same. In that fashion, he organizes a countrywide male-only competition to discover a suitable talent. Wing could not lose this opportunity to be side by side with her idols, and so she decides to disguise as a man and enter the competition.
Expectantly, she wins, but she soon discovers that her favorite couple are not so happy as they seem, with their relationship being highly dysfunctional due to their overwhelming egos. Wing resolves to help them stay together, but finds a lot of obstacles on front of her, chiefly having to do with hers and Sam’s sexuality.
Leslie Cheung plays Sam, and although he is not the protagonist, he manages to give a terrific performance, delivering both hilarious comedic moments and heartfelt melodramatic ones.
5. Temptress Moon (Chen Kaige, 1996)
The film takes place in Shanghai in the 1910’s and tells the story of the Pang family. Master Pang indulges his opium addiction in a dive, where he occasionally brings with him his daughter, Ruyi. Her older brother, Zhengda, is also an addict who eventually paralyzes from the substance and ends up brain-dead.
Zhongliang, his brother-in-law, who has been expelled from the family, is a gigolo in Shanghai who seduces older women and then blackmails them. When Master Pang dies, the family decides to appoint Ruyi as the new master. Subsequently, Zhongliang returns to the household and experiences a mutual attraction for Ruyi. However, Yu Xiuyi, his sister and Zhengda’s wife, is not about to let them do as they want.
Leslie Cheung holds the protagonist role as Zhongliang, and he performs with his usual suave a cold and ruthless character, who becomes very likable. His role is quite demanding, as he begins as a disillusioned young man who almost happily succumbs to the triads’ machinations but ends up helplessly and unfortunately for him, in love.
Furthermore, Kaige uses him as a symbol of his country’s persisting loss of innocence and tradition. His depiction of all the above is quite accomplished and one of the few assets of a mediocre film.
4. Ashes of Time (Wong Kar Wai, 1994)
In a vast desert, Ouyang Feng owns a small hotel where he has established himself as an intermediate for wandering warriors and individuals who demand revenge. Feng ended up there after the woman he was in love with chose to marry his older brother, forcing him to abandon his home. Huang Yao Shi is a wandering swordsman who visits Feng each year. This time, however, he has brought with him a wine that makes you lose your memory.
Leslie Cheung plays a melancholy and detached character, whose only concern is making a profit. He has no interest in moral values, feelings, and relationships with other people, with the only thing left that still tortures him is the memory of the loss of the only woman he ever loved. His missed chance for happiness seems to follow him, thus resulting in him accepting his predetermined fate without any effort to avoid it, even forcing it to happen.
His portrayal of a very complex character is once again quite competent, being the protagonist of this definite masterpiece.
3. Happy Together (Wong Kar Wai, 1997)
Lai Yiu-fai and Ho Po Wing are lovers, spending their vacations in Argentina. However, something seems off in their relationship and eventually Ho abandons Lai. The latter, not having enough money to return home, takes a job in a bar that also offers a room to stay in.
In the meantime, Ho meets with men, until one day he reappears in front of Lai, physically injured. Lai takes care of him, and despite losing his job, he manages to find another one as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant where he meets a young man named Chang.
Leslie Cheung plays Ho, a frivolous, pettish, and impatient individual who has no regard for those around him and is only interested in experiencing new things. His performance as a dark, though vulnerable character and the exact opposite of Chang is exquisite.
2. Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar Wai, 1990)
The script is set in 1960’s Hong Kong and tells the story of a number of individuals and their romantic relationships. Yuddy meets Su Lizhen in a stadium’s snack bar and has a passing affair with her. Later on he meets a stripper named Mimi and his best friend, Zeb, falls in love with her. In the meantime, Su Lizhen meets a police officer named Tide.
Wong Kar Wai bases his film upon Yuddy, Leslie Cheung’s character, who once again plays a cold and self-centered character, who is unable to commit to a relationship and tends to dismiss his girlfriends without caring for their hurt feelings.
However, through his relationship with his adopted mother, a prostitute set on keeping the identity of his biological mother a secret, his character becomes likable as usual. Moreover, his character is the one that instigates all the relationships appearing in the film.
Cheung’s prowess in playing similar characters found its apogee in this film, which netted him a Best Actor Award from the Hong Kong Film Awards.
1. Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1993)
Based on the homonymous novel by Lilian Lee, the film tells the story of two friends, Douzi and Shitou, through the story of the Chinese opera, from 1924 to 1977 and the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Douzi’s mother is a prostitute raising him in the brothel where she works. However, when he is too old to continue staying there, she gives him over to an opera school in Beijing. Master Guan, the head of the school, is a harsh teacher and the training is very hard on the delicate Douzi. Nevertheless, another boy named Shitou befriends him and acts as his protector. The two of them become best friends.
Through the years, this friendship transforms into love from Douzi’s side, a feeling that is unrequited. Furthermore, their relationship is put on the test when Shitou marries a prostitute named Juxian.
Leslie Cheung plays Douzi, an effeminate character, who is actually raised as a homosexual, since only men acted in Chinese operas, and Douzi was assigned female roles from the beginning, regardless of whether he consented. This tactic eventually shapes his character, since the public loves his portrayal of female characters, thus making him a star.
His tragic depiction of a transvestite, who essentially becomes a woman in order to satisfy public demand and then faces contempt when he succeeds, is sublime, with Leung even adopting the characteristics of the femme fatale archetype, being vain, vulnerable and bitchy.
Author Bio: Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic who focuses on the cinema of East Asia. He enjoys films from all genres, although he is a big fan of exploitation. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.