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The Iconic Queer Legacy of Leslie Cheung

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Twenty-five years after his groundbreaking role in Wong Kar-wai’s queer classic Happy Together, the Hong Kong actor and flamboyant, ahead-of-his-time pop star continues to inspire a new generation of artists.

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Leslie Cheung during his Shanghai concert in 2000.Zhang chunhai

Hong Kong was just about to be handed back to China when Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1997. At the time, reporters wondered if this would be the great director’s statement on the historic transition but instead, he made a film about doomed gay love in Argentina, saying “I thought that the best way to avoid answering the question was to go make a movie abroad.” Wong went on to win the Best Director trophy at Cannes against a stacked deck that included Ang Lee, Michael Haneke and Wim Wenders. Twenty-five years later, Happy Together is remembered as one of the greatest LGBTQ films of all time – and for a definitive performance by the queer Asian icon Leslie Cheung.

Before Happy Together, in which he plays a tempestuous, wanton playboy trapped in a bad romance in Buenos Aires, Cheung was best known for his late-80s roles in John Woo’s landmark action film A Better Tomorrow and Stanley Kwan’s tragic romance Rouge, which showcased his dual personas as brave hero and sensitive, androgynous diva. But he also maintained a parallel career as a provocative pop star. Cheung initially became famous in 1977 as a contestant on the Hong Kong TV show Asian Music Contest, winning second place with a cover of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” As his profile as a pop singer grew, he started acting in largely lightweight roles on film and TV, before finally breaking through as a leading man.

Cheung came out of the closet in 1997, after the release of Happy Together, and the film seemed to embolden him: In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Cheung and his co-star Tony Leung dance the tango in an empty communal kitchen. The shows on his 1997 Red tour featured a sexually-charged take on the kitchen scene, with Cheung and a male dancer both dressed in sparkly black tuxedos—Cheung accessorizing with red heels, of course. He dedicated a song to his boyfriend Daffy Tong every night, which was widely understood by his fans to be a statement about his sexuality. “I went to one of the shows of that concert,” Kwan told GQ. “He sang that song to confess his love for his lover. And I remember sitting there and crying. And I remember the audience clapping, cheering Leslie on… They were crying, yelling ‘Leslie, good job.’”

Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung in Happy Together

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

After Cheung’s Ho Po-Wing loses contact with Leung’s Lai Yiu-Fai in Happy Together, he goes back to the shoebox apartment they once shared and decides to rent it. In a largely silent scene toward the end of the film, we see Ho preparing the apartment for an arrival that will never come, cleaning the floors the way Lai used to do for him, stocking up on the cigarettes Lai used to buy for him, hopelessly waiting by the door. In the end, he holds their Iguazu Falls lamp in his hands, grasping at what could’ve been.

The scene echoes a moment in the 1933 Greta Garbo film Queen Christina. After spending the night with her lover, Garbo wordlessly walks through the room as if in a trance, caressing every surface, trying to memorize and capture every texture and sensation in the room they made love in. “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room,” she tells him.

“Leslie naturally possessed both feminine and masculine [qualities]—not to mention an enigmatic mystique that was just so unique I think no other star has come remotely close to having,” the trans Filipino-American filmmaker Isabel Sandoval told me. “I think he’s the closest we’ve come to a modern-day Garbo in his sexual ambiguity.”

In 1997, Wong said that “Leslie can give the impression of being more fragile, but, in fact, he is someone with great determination.” Cheung wasn’t always celebrated in his time, but the determination Wong speaks of galvanized a whole generation of queer Asian creatives. “The first time I saw Happy Together I was in shock… It showed me that two men can love like any other.” says Patrick Kuang-Hui Liu, the Taiwanese director of the 2020 film Your Name Engraved Herein, which became the first queer movie to exceed NT$100 million at the Taiwanese box office. When Liu’s film hit Netflix in late 2020, more than a few viewers noted similarities to Happy Together. Liu says he understands the comparisons but maintains “I would never dare to compete with Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together.”

Still, Your Name nods to the film and Cheung in specific ways. On the walls of the teenage protagonist A-han’s room, we see posters of Cheung and English pop star George Michael in all their late ‘80s glory. “[They] were both pioneer pop artists, who had a powerful influence on the Eastern and Western gay communities in the same period of time,” Liu says. “The posters are my salute to two great artists who enlightened me during my dark age [when I was struggling with my sexuality].”

From Happy Together.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

For Liu, Cheung inspired Asia’s gay community just by existing. “He was the only openly-queer superstar in the ‘90s,” he says. “And being accepted by his fans—due to his unique charisma and artistic achievements—he really showed that gay people can be themselves in a beautiful way… He was a significant figure to me and to my gay circle of friends. He showed us a silver lining. We hoped to be out and proud but we were not ready yet to fight the real world.”

In 2019, Sandoval became the first trans woman of color to direct (and star in) a film competing at the Venice Film Festival, with her sensual social justice thriller Lingua Franca. Sandoval says she found inspiration in Cheung’s refusal to conform to gender norms. “I love that Leslie embraced and reveled in his queerness enough to manifest what made him sexy, captivating and singular,” she told GQ. “He was fearless, he didn’t care what you thought, and he wasn’t just going to fit conveniently into neat little boxes to please you.”

The designer and restaurateur Humberto Leon, partner in the seminal downtown fashion boutique Opening Ceremony and now the chief marketing officer behind L.A. restaurant Chifa, learned Chinese from watching Cheung and Anita Mui movies and variety shows. “His exuberance and flamboyance was really attractive to me,” Leon says, “to see an Asian man be that was super cool.” Leon continued, “I was kind of watching a muse. It was like how you felt on the inside but somebody’s living that on the outside… Creatively, he’s always been at the back of my mind as a mood board of who I love, who has really kind of paved the way for me.”

Even mainstream pop culture isn’t immune to Cheung’s influence. Earlier this year, BTS member V posted a clip of Cheung’s memorable mambo from Days of Being Wild on his Instagram and later posted a video of himself echoing those moves. Similarly, the Korean actor Yoo Ah-in has posted Leslie Cheung vinyl on his Instagram.

The Bushwick bar Mood Ring, which aims to be a safe space for LGBTQ+ people of color, is unabashedly inspired by Wong’s filmography, from the In the Mood for Love-referencing name to a cocktail named after Tony Leung. Fittingly, a Happy Together neon sign and a Days of Being Wild (another of three Wong films that starred Cheung) tapestry get pride of place. “For those of us who love him, Leslie is an undisputed icon and forever star heartthrob of our greatest dreams,” Mood Ring founders Vanessa Li and Bowen Goh said via email. “His performance in [Happy Together] is heartbreaking… He’s left us something that we’ll be pondering for centuries.”

Cheung’s Ho disappears about halfway through Happy Together, but his ghost lingers. When Leung’s Lai is crying into a tape recorder or cruising for trade in public restrooms, it’s Cheung that he—and we—are thinking of. Like In the Mood for Love, Happy Together is a film whose title betrays it. A movie about being home sick, about being love sick, about the struggle of immigrants and the impossibility of returning to better days—everyone’s always talking about going home in Happy Together, but they never get there. “I had no regrets until I met you,” Lai tells Ho at one point. “Now my regrets could kill me.”

Cheung on his final concert tour in 2000.

Gcmt

Leslie Cheung succumbed to his struggles with mental health in 2003, jumping off the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. Three years earlier, on his final concert tour, he wore provocative, gender-bending costumes by the designer Jean Paul Gaultier, including a sheer sailor top, an embellished skirt and a long black wig, for which he was vilified by the local media. In 2001, the music video for “Bewildered,” featuring Cheung opposite a male ballet dancer, had been banned by TVB, the top local channel in Hong Kong. Later, he would say that he was so depressed from the vitriol around this tour that he would never perform again.

The openly-gay Kwan tells the following story to illustrate Hong Kong’s views on queer work by queer artists in the early ‘00s: “When [Kwan’s 2001 queer film] Lan Yu came out theatrically in Hong Kong, the box-office wasn’t very good,” he says. “However, when it came out on DVD, it was actually on top of the DVD charts for two weeks. I had a friend who told me, ‘Stanley, you know, me and my boyfriend don’t even hold hands. If we walked up to the box-office, we’d be afraid of getting looks.’”

Cheung on stage in 2000.

Zhang chunhai

Cheung’s peers like Leung and Michelle Yeoh are being discovered and rediscovered by a worldwide audience in their late 50s, thanks to Hollywood hits like Shang-Chi, Crazy Rich Asians and Everything Everywhere All at Once. But “[Leslie] was a bit ahead of his time,” Wong told John Powers in the 2016 book The Cinema of Wong Kar-wai. “For the general public, it was, ‘You’re too much.’ He was over the top.” “He paved the way for so many that he would be so applauded in this generation,” Leon says. “I feel like he would’ve definitely transcended and become a global star…. You can imagine him in so many cool things and queer things.”

Kwan, whose Cheung collaboration Rouge will get a Criterion Collection release next month, isn’t really interested in talking about what could’ve been. “I can’t say for sure whether he’d be rediscovered or whether he’d hit it big like Tony Leung or Michelle Yeoh,” he says. “But we can see him playing this cowardly young man in Rouge, we can see his anger in A Better Tomorrow, his acting range was limitless…. Some people are appropriately frozen at a certain moment.”

Cheung in Stanley Kwan’s Rouge.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

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