The suicide of Hong Kong Cantopop star and actor Leslie Cheung seemed like a bad April Fool’s joke. That evening, the 46-year-old Cheung, one of Asia’s most loved entertainers and one of the few Chinese actors willing to play openly gay characters, leaped to his death from the 24th-floor gym of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong.
Cheung, whose father was the late William Holden’s tailor, was the youngest of 10 children. His tenure in the spotlight began in 1977, when he placed second in an island talent search. Cheung became a successful pop singer, but it wasn’t until his role as the good cop in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) that he became a regional phenomenon. His legend grew with starring turns in Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story I and II (1987, 1990) and Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1988), but his artistic breakthrough was the haunting portrayal of a delicate but manipulative Peking Opera star in Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993). His stunning performance made him a star abroad; the film’s gay sequences—as well as his flamboyant concert persona—made him the subject of constant scrutiny and innuendo at home.
Concubine merely brought to the surface the sense of despair and sexual confusion that had been with Cheung even in earlier films like A Better Tomorrow and Woo’s Once a Thief (1991). His best performances fixed on that slight smear of self-loathing—of an unreachable sadness—that clouded his gentle face. As in Concubine or Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1991) and Happy Together (1997), Cheung was at his best when his soft eyes turned to hard glass, when his elegant features took on a cruel curl.
The voracious Hong Kong press is now sifting for answers, describing Cheung as a vain beauty terrified of aging and pointing to the depression and insomnia that plagued him during the shooting of last year’s spook flick Inner Senses. Though Cheung’s suicide note has not been published, it’s been reported that he claimed to be sober in his final hours and that “affairs of the heart” had pushed him over the brink. For now, it seems best to remember Cheung in his Happy Together character Ho Po-wing. Cheung was never better than in those rare moments of dumb, noisy, dreamy joy. Perhaps he was finally seduced by his character’s insatiably defiant catchphrase: “Let’s start over. We could start over.”