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The Fall of Celluloid Hong Kong

The suicide of gender-bending actor Leslie Cheung also symbolizes the demise of a wild, uninhibited era of Hong Kong film that inspired many Hollywood directors.
 
 
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Though deeply saddened, I was not surprised that Hong Kong movie star and pop singer Leslie Cheung jumped to his death on April 1. Of all the stars from Hong Kong's brief, golden film era, Cheung seemed the most likely to do so. Speculations abound as to why he would commit suicide -- romantic love gone awry, passing his prime, even mental illness. But whatever the reason or reasons, it seems somehow apt that Cheung took his exit as Hong Kong had already begun to lose its aesthetic vision and glamour.

Hong Kong's downward trend has been apparent for some time to those of us who love the city. The last time I was there, the theater close to where Cheung died was playing solely American films, from "The Blair Witch Project" to "The General's Daughter" to "The Sixth Sense." If I had expected sword-toting heroes flying on rooftops, gangster girls using guns and knives to take over each other's casinos, or beautiful ghosts in fabulous kimonos falling in love with handsome travelers, I was out of luck.

As a journalist, I often went to Hong Kong on assignment. But each time, I was also searching for a sensibility of the modern East, an uninhibited wildness on the silver screen that, with its many twists and turns, is a refreshing alternative to Hollywood's cynical and formulaic happily-ever-afters.

From martial art hero to opera singer to tough cop to innocent scholar, Leslie Cheung played them all. But the actor, singer and gender-bender earned international fame for playing an effeminate opera performer in "Farewell My Concubine," which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film in 1993.

Yet these days, one is hard-pressed to find Cheung on-screen. In fact, it is hard to find anybody Chinese starring in Hong Kong films, a sad turn of events for a colony of 6.4 million people that, at its peak, churned out a magnificent 160 movies a year.

Cheung's career mirrored Hong Kong's rise and decline. The decisive breakthrough in Hong Kong movies came in the late 1980s. In one example, 1987's "A Chinese Ghost story," Cheung played a bumbling scholar who fell in love with a ghost and had to learn martial arts and descend to hell to rescue her. He followed that performance in John Woo's "A Better Tomorrow," playing a strong-willed detective opposite Chow Yun-Fat.

Cheung and the others helped Hong Kong cinema find its center. By the early 1990s, Hong Kong was no longer blindly copying Hollywood films and rendering them into Chinese stories. Instead, it reached back to its own traditions to create a hybrid sort of storytelling, highly individualized yet informed by traditional cultures and myths. The result: Dueling fighters floating like birds in the air, wearing fanciful costumes from sci-fi films and mythological eras, with story lines even more fantastic than the clothing and make-up.

As Hong Kong began to find itself in the mid-'90s, it was Hollywood's turn to copy. Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, and Quentin Tarantino expressed tremendous enthusiasm for the martial art genre, and Tarantino has admitted to being "inspired" by John Woo's "City on Fire" when making his film "Reservoir Dogs." Cheung, more daring than other performers and more moody on-screen, thrived on the genre's originality.

Cheung played effeminate roles in addition to romantic leads. He seduced men and women with equal zeal. He wore Jean Paul Gautier design clothes -- skirts and boas and gowns -- when he performed his many pop songs to adoring fans all over Asia. He French-kissed Tony Leung and danced the tango in "Happy Together," and got away with it in a largely conservative and homophobic part of the world.

All that has ended, however, since the economic crisis hit Asia in the late 1990s. Besides, Hong Kong is not a stable place. Wave after wave of immigrants make change a constant. Not long ago, Hong Kong moviegoers delighted in seeing globe-trotting heroes and heroines fighting the bad guys and sipping wines in distant places. These days, many residents who can afford to -- including movie stars and directors -- have migrated to those distant lands, as Hong Kong turns into a more modest version of itself. But Cheung stayed. Perhaps being a real method actor, he shunned the idea of playing action figures for Hollywood amusement.

A sensitive child and the youngest of 10 siblings caught in their parents' unhappy marriage, Cheung wore his sadness like a medallion on-screen. He jumped from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel as Hong Kong, facing economic recession and plagued with SARS, the dangerous new respiratory illness, becomes a place where everyone wears a face mask, where breathing itself could kill you. In such a place, it seems there's little room left for the imagination.

In fantasy -- on screen, of course -- at twilight, a mysterious white-haired beauty would have risen from somewhere unseen to grab hold of him and fly him to some mysterious new world. In reality, as the silver screen is darkened and the city is in a panic, the unhappy actor fell to earth, and left in his wake an unspeakable void.

Andrew Lam ( lam@pacificnews.org) is an editor at Pacific News Service and a recent Knight Fellow at Stanford University.