Remembering Leslie Cheung
Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.
On April 1, 2003, Leslie Cheung ended his life by leaping from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in central Hong Kong. He was forty-six years old. On the tenth anniversary of his death, fans from around the world made two million origami cranes in his honor—a Guinness World Record. A teen heartthrob Cantopop star before adding film acting to his repertoire, Cheung was a celebrity not only in Hong Kong, but also across East Asia and beyond. In a 2005 poll conducted in honor of the centenary of Chinese cinema, Hong Kongers named him their favorite all-time actor, beating out the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. A 2010 CNN International poll ranked him as the world’s third most iconic musical artist, behind Michael Jackson and the Beatles. His legions of fans run the gamut from millennials to retirees.
Last summer, around the time of our annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, I began receiving emails from near and far asking if we were planning a tribute to Cheung for our 2013 festival. In response to this unprecedented outpouring, I decided to include four classic Cheung performances in this year’s lineup, including three 35mm prints from the Hong Kong Film Archive that are otherwise unavailable in any form in the United States.
In keeping with the crowdsourced nature of this tribute, we left the selection of the final film up to our audience. A Facebook poll allowed fans to choose between three of Cheung’s films that were directed by the great Wong Kar-wai: Ashes of Time, Days of Being Wild, and Happy Together.
The winner, Days of Being Wild, couldn’t be a more appropriate choice. It was a pivotal film in both the actor’s and the director’s careers, garnering each his first Hong Kong Film Award. As film critic J. Hoberman put it in the Village Voice, “Days of Being Wild is the movie with which Wong Kar-wai became Wong Kar-wai—the most influential, passionate, and romantic of neo-new-wave directors.” The first of Wong’s many collaborations with master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film radiates the dreamlike atmosphere of lush romanticism and longing for lost time that would become his trademark in more famous films, such as In the Mood for Love and 2046. At a time when Hong Kong was known for action movies, broad comedies, and kung fu flicks, this luxuriously paced portrait of wounded hearts and lost souls looked like and felt like nothing else.
In a beautifully nostalgic version of 1960s Hong Kong, Cheung stars as Yuddy (York in English), a charming playboy (Hong Kong film critic Edmund Lee calls him “James Dean reincarnated”) who breaks hearts while seeking to leave his foster mother and solve the mystery surrounding his real one. That Yuddy compares himself to a “bird without legs” of Chinese legend, which can only land when it dies, is especially poignant considering the depression Cheung struggled with throughout his all-too-short life.
Days of Being Wild will be shown in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on Friday, August 2, at 7 pm, and Sunday, August 4, at 2 pm. Admission is free, with seats available on a first-come, first-served basis.