In 2003, when news hit that insanely popular singer and actor Leslie Cheung took his own life on April 1, at the age of 46, it seemed at first like the worst kind of April Fool’s Day joke. Hong Kong was already dealing with the SARS epidemic, which didn’t peak until the middle of the year. Then another beloved singer and actress, Anita Mui, succumbed to cervical cancer in December, at just 40 years of age. 2003 was not a good year in Hong Kong.
Cheung and Mui were both revered around the world; they were two of the biggest stars in Chinese pop culture. But they held especially important places in the hearts, minds and cinema of Hong Kong. Because of that, the Hong Kong Film Archive is screening a series of films by the two in Glory Days: When Leslie Met Anita, one part retrospective and one part memorial.
Hong Kong in the early 1980s was a fertile breeding ground for a new breed of filmmaker, many of whom had a hand in shaping the devil-may-care industry of the 1980s and 90s. It was a true golden age; the sheer volume of working coming out of the city at the time put Hong Kong cinema on the Asian vanguard, because it possessed one thing the region’s other industries did not: artistic freedom. The sheer exuberance and inventiveness of Hong Kong cinema gave it global influence, with filmmakers from the Wachowskis (The Matrix) to Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), and from James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) to Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) all lifting motifs, images and storytelling philosophies from the city’s cinema. Scores of actors forged indelible personae for themselves, including Chow Yun-fat, the two Tony Leungs (Ka-fai and Chiu-wai), Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau, to name just a few. Cheung and Mui were two of the most trailblazing stars of this generation.
Cheung began his career playing rebels, romantics and cops — John Woo’s 1986 breakout A Better Tomorrow was also Cheung’s — but soon embraced his good looks and fluid sexuality (he identified as bisexual) to leave a lasting impression with confrontational, ambiguous material that knowingly played with gender norms. Cheung could be dangerous, impish and goofy; he had tremendous dramatic range as well as crack comic timing.
Mui, with her giant expressive eyes and deep contralto voice, seemed to be the perfect complement to Cheung, emerging as the industry’s go-to actress when a role called for someone to convincingly challenging tradition. She had an unconventional appearance and fearless attitude that would have been perfect for the Twitter age, and would certainly resonate in the era of Time’s Up. As with Cheung, she was as comfortable with drama as with comedy, and she had no trouble going toe-to-toe with comedy giant Stephen Chow in Justice, My Foot!
Cheung and Mui were both notable for fearlessly standing up to censors. Cheung refused to edit the music video for his single “Bewildered,” which featured two men in a love song. TVB banned it for “advocating homosexuality.” Mui earned a ban by authorities in Guangzhou when she sang her hit “Bad Girl” live, which the government believed was pornographic. It was a Cantonese language cover of Sheena Easton’s “Strut,” and it was just as defiant.
The pair first teamed up in throwaway rom-coms Behind the Yellow Line (directed by Taylor Wong) and Yuen Chor’s Last Song in Paris, but their most renowned collaboration was on Stanley Kwan’s 1988 supernatural romance Rouge, about the restless ghost of a courtesan (Mui) looking for her lost lover (Cheung). The smouldering sensuality of the opium den they fall in love in, the lush 1930s period detail, the actors’ chemistry and palpable longing in many ways set the tone for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love almost 20 years later, and demonstrated why Cheung and Mui had — and continue to have — such an impact on Hong Kong cinema.
Rouge has already screened in the Film Archive showcase, but Peter Chan’s 1996 gender-bending rom-com Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man is coming up, as are two dozen films showcasing Cheung and Mui’s considerable charms. The series also doubles as the ideal crash course for anyone still trying to find a way into Hong Kong’s wild, subversive, and often-inscrutable film history.Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997), one of three films Cheung and Wong made together, may be a handover metaphor, but it is definitely one of the greatest romantic dramas ever made in Hong Kong. That the central gay couple was portrayed by Cheung and Tony Leung — a pairing akin to Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise — certainly raised the film’s profile, as well as Cheung’s standing in Asia’s LGBT community. But he started playing with gender representation even earlier, in Peter Chan’s He’s a Woman, She’s the Man (1994), where he starred as Sam, a record producer plotting to make his young male protégé a superstar — though he’s a girl. Then he falls in love with her. Or him. A satire of gender and sexual identity well ahead of the curve in Hong Kong, Chan and Cheung revisited their brilliant work with two years later, doubling down on gender politics in Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man, which also starred Mui.
Aside from Wong’s Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time Redux, and Cheng Kaige’s Oscar-nominated Farewell My Concubine (all deserve theatrical viewings) Derek Yee’s Viva Erotica (1996) is one of Hong Kong’s great unsung meta-comedies. Cheung is flawless as a director reduced to making softcore porn to pay the bills. It’s a smart, sweet comedy that takes hilarious aim at the fundamental absurdity of Hong Kong’s film industry.
Mui’s ability to shift from fluff to gravitas made her a popular film actress, even though she never focused on the medium fully at any period during her career as an entertainer. Nonetheless, she, along with Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh, left a lasting impression on the action genre in The Heroic Trio, Johnnie To’s gonzo comic book adventure that may also be an allegory for Greater China cultural and political dynamics. Mui plays Wonder Woman, a meek, obedient housewife by day, be-caped crime-fighter by night. Great wirework helps, but the furiously paced fantasy is held together by three of Hong Kong’s greats, led by a straight-faced Mui.
She took a serious turn to work with veteran director Ann Hui, first on Eighteen Springs (1997) and later July Rhapsody (2002), her last performance. Based on Eileen Chang’s novel and set in 1930s Shanghai, the former film pivots on the impact of class distinction on two women, and sees Mui as a former nightclub hostess who finds herself in an impossible position. The latter is a conventional drama about mid-life dissatisfaction lifted well above its material because of Mui and co-star Jacky Cheung’s performances. Mui is effortlessly lived-in and wholly empathetic in making middle-aged apathy heartbreaking.
Glory Days: When Leslie Met Anita runs until June 10, 2018. Click here for more information.