Heartthrob, pop star, and celebrated Hong Kong actor, Leslie Cheung was one of Asia's most popular performers and intriguing personalities. Bearing an odd sensuality that both fueled the films he stared in (particularly Rouge, Viva Erotica, Days of Being Wild, and Happy Together) and the Hong Kong tabloids, Cheung was well-known for both the breadth of his work and his offscreen life. Although featured to great effect in several of John Woo's butch action outings, Cheung was notable for being one of the few Asian stars to play openly gay characters, a choice that gained particular resonance when he came out after playing one of his most famous gay roles in Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together.
Born in Hong Kong on September 12, 1956, Cheung was the youngest of ten children. Influenced early on by both the film world, as his father was actor William Holden's tailor, and his parents' divorce, Cheung went on to study at England's Leeds University. After returning to Hong Kong, he jump-started his career by winning second prize in the 1976 ATV Asian Music Contest. His status as a pop singer led the way to work on television, film, and the stage. In 1981, Cheung became a bona fide star with the success of his album The Wind Blows On, which established him as Asia's most popular singer.
It was not until 1986 that Cheung's film career really gained momentum, thanks to his casting as a rookie cop opposite Chow Yun-Fat in John Woo's popular gangster film A Better Tomorrow. The film's success enabled Cheung to branch out in his film work, and, in 1988, the same year he starred in the sequel to A Better Tomorrow, he played the opium-smoking playboy lead in Stanley Kwan's Rouge, a romantic ghost story that oscillates between the Hong Kong of the 1930s and that of 1987. Rouge was one of the most widely acclaimed films to come out of Hong Kong during the 1980s and helped to establish Cheung as a romantic leading man as well as an action star.
The actor continued to work in a variety of films with some of the industry's most respected directors throughout the 1990s. In 1990, he starred in Woo's action film Once a Thief, again alongside fellow action star Chow Yun-Fat. Later, he got the chance to expand his acting palette in Wong Kar-Wai's Days of Being Wild (1991) by playing Yuddy, a thoroughly despicable heel who uses and abuses most of the women in his life. In 1993, Cheung starred in another action spectacular as Zhuo Yi-Hang, the sensitive swordsman and star-crossed romantic lead in The Bride with White Hair. That same year, he earned international acclaim and recognition for his performance as an opera star specializing in female roles in Chen Kaige's landmark historical drama Farewell, My Concubine. Cheung lent his character's complicated gender identity an unusual pathos and sensitivity, making the development of his on-stage love to off-stage longing all the more affecting. Three years later, he again worked with Chen, as a dissolute opium addict in Temptress Moon.
In 1994, he paired up with Wong Kar-Wai again as the ambivalent swordslinger hired to kill and protect the same person in the existential action epic Ashes of Time. In 1997, again with Wong, Cheung starred in perhaps the most daring role of his career as the bitchy Ho Po-wing, one of a pair of gay Chinese lovers stranded in Buenos Aires in Happy Together. The film's explicit sex scenes made Happy Together one of the most controversial movies of the year and one of the most acclaimed. Cheung subsequently starred as a sleazy softcore film producer in Viva Erotica.
Continuing to appear in numerous films through the millennial crossover, Cheung continued to gain accolades for his diverse and affecting roles. From his touching performance as a stockbroker who finds new meaning in life upon adopting a young orphan in The Kid (1999), to a haunting and eerily prophetic final role in the thriller Inner Senses (2002), his unique persona continued to earn the respect of longtime fans and reach out to those still unfamilar with Cheung's remarkable charm and captivating screen presence.
When Cheung's death from an apparent suicide was announced in April 1, 2003, the international film community suffered a devastating blow and legions of fans had a difficult time grasping how an actor of such talent could end his life with one fateful leap while still in the prime of his career. Following the news of Cheung's untimely death, fans began mourning the loss of the cinematic icon while simultaniously taking note of the tragic irony of his own fate in parallel to that of his troubled character in Inner Senses.