Leslie Cheung (closeup) in Happy Together
Leslie Cheung in 'Happy Together' (1997)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 16 Feb 2021

About Face: Wong Kar Wai’s Leslie Trilogy

Film Retrospective

Clare Stewart


Screen prince and Canto-pop angel Leslie Cheung mesmerised us in three films directed by Wong Kar Wai. Clare Stewart's essay, written in the wake of Cheung's untimely death in 2003 explores the angles and facets of the man and his performances.

About this essay

'About Face' was originally written for ACMI’s Leslie Cheung season presented in 2004. The season was a response to Leslie’s tragic suicide at a time when Hong Kong was in the grips of the SARS pandemic. Because it was written as a tribute to his untimely death, I can’t quite bring myself to update the article – even though Leslie definitely lives on! (This is why some of the references, especially to Wong Kar Wai’s filmography, are frozen in time).

The Leslie Cheung film season and the accompanying publication evolved out of a wonderful collaboration with film critic Philippa Hawker. We were both genuine fans of Leslie’s and my initial pathway to discovering his artistry was through the films of Wong Kar Wai. That film programme remains a professional highlight and continues to have personal resonance for me. While I was researching it, I met with Leslie’s fanclub in Hong Kong and they, in turn, introduced me to Leslie’s dear friend, producer Nansun Shi. In our first meeting, Nansun instantly picked up the phone and helped me clear screening rights for the season. Almost 20 years later, she is now my beloved friend and mentor. On that same trip to Hong Kong (when Filmart was postponed to September because of SARS), Nansun also gave me the address for Long Kong Ladies, the tailor that made the cheong-sams that Maggie Cheung wears for In the Mood for Love. Of course, that demanded a special pilgrimage and I kept the tiny notebook in which Nansun had written the address in Chinese characters for the taxi driver. It is my sincere wish that through this Wong Kar Wai retrospective, new generations will also discover the intoxicating charm of Leslie Cheung. Viva Leslie!

– Clare Stewart

About Face

Wong Kar Wai’s Leslie Trilogy

Wong Kar Wai, heavenly king of avant-pop cinema, and Leslie Cheung, screen prince and Canto-pop angel: an exalted, celestial commingling.[1] They collaborated on three feature films: Days of Being Wild (1990), Ashes of Time (1994) and Happy Together (1997). Leslie lent the force of his stardom to Wong’s visionary productions. Wong simultaneously enhanced and effaced Leslie’s iconic presence. Leslie would give Wong three perfect takes on characters who could not be held, and who could not hold onto love. Wong would create a secret space for Leslie, a space between passion and regret, a space to get lost and found in.

Wong Kar Wai’s inventive oeuvre comprises seven feature films to date [2] – As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000). Hong Kong’s pre-eminent art film director, Wong is a distinctive filmmaker whose experiments with style and form are well versed in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa and the French New Wave. Championed in Europe as the ‘Godard for the MTV generation’, [3] his films are equally admired by American independents who demonstrate their appreciation by appropriating his techniques (Quentin Tarantino was instrumental in securing the American theatrical release of Chungking Express). In Hong Kong he occupies a unique position, having defined a personal cinema within the commercial industry. His productions attract movie stars and Canto-pop idols the calibre of Leslie, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Andy Lau, Brigitte Lin, Carina Lau, Faye Wong, Chen Chang and Leon Lai. Together with Taiwanese directors Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, he is central to a new Asian art cinema that is auteur driven and widely celebrated on the global film festival circuit.

Wong’s narrative playfulness is frequently compared to South American writers Manuel Puig, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar (Days of Being Wild and Happy Together are responses to Puig’s Heartbreak Tango and The Buenos Aires Affair respectively) and Wong acknowledges their influence on his work. Fragmented, labyrinthine, circular: his predominant narrative mode eschews cause-and-effect storytelling in favour of patterned and repeating structures that alternately activate and enact memory. The literary connection is formally significant: Puig, Borges and Cortázar experiment with writing modes that give representation to different temporal rhythms and experiences. Wong uses design, technique and performance to illuminate the theme of time in all its guises: ‘the mysteries of change, the ephemerality of the present, the secret affinities between simultaneous incidents, the longing created by memory and nostalgia.’ [4] His story structures map emotional responses to the effects of time; the tempo is driven by the desires and limitations of his characters; stories seem only partly told and characters appear and disappear according to idiosyncratic temporal logic rather than as a result of their own actions. The films are never ‘closed’, the ‘endings’ seeming more like ‘beginnings’; collectively they are a discontinuous continuum (as Borges might say [5]), situations and characters leak from one film into another. It is possible to consider all the films as one work-in-progress, and also to consider the films collectively in different formations (the Leslie trilogy; the pairing of Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love or Chungking Express and Fallen Angels).

Wong destabilises genre and obscures historical and geographical specificity. The three Leslie films exemplify his play with these elements: Days of Being Wild is streaked with noir and set in a lush, imaginary Hong Kong and the Philippines circa 1960; Ashes of Time, an elliptical riff on the swordplay epic, was filmed in mainland China and based on the popular wuxia novel by Louis Cha/Jin Yong (the novel is set in Southern Song Dynasty [1127–1279] though Wong does not divulge this in the film); Happy Together, with its inclinations towards the road movie, is set in contemporary Argentina. Despite the distinctive milieus, the films are linked by a number of recurring aspects, in particular the emotional continuum of Leslie’s characters: Yuddy, the careless youth who refuses the romantic interest of Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) and Mimi/Leung Fung-ying (Carina Lau), as well as the love of his adoptive mother (Rebecca Pan); Oy-yang/Malicious West, the melancholic loner doomed to reflect on his heedlessly lost true love (also played by Maggie Cheung, Wong’s ‘selfless love’ muse); Ho Po-wing, destined to repeatedly sever his connection with Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) who is devoted to serving him.

Leslie Cheung in 'Ashes of Time: Redux' (2008)

Leslie Cheung in 'Ashes of Time: Redux' (2008)

Time, the predominant subject of Wong’s films, is also an element essential in his process. Wong’s directing is intuitive and spontaneous: responsive to ‘the moment’, he is constantly reworking the script (often daily during shooting) to better capture the lighting, mood or location. The script acts as a departure point for the actors and Wong’s key collaborators, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and production designer and editor William Chang, whose inventiveness and ideas are material to the outcome. Shooting is frequently stalled to permit Wong time to reconfigure, then consequently rushed to meet externally imposed deadlines (the actors’ schedules, film festival premieres, release dates). The final film is constructed in the edit suite, not, as Wong points out, via the usual linear assemblage, but via a process of discounting, of ‘breaking down’. Leslie referred directly to the impact Wong’s process had on his own schedule, a process that kept him from the business of being a star: ‘Somehow I find it very difficult to work with him, especially he’s killing a lot of time for me’. [6] This notion of ‘killing time’ is something that is antithetical to commercial Hong Kong filmmaking practice, renowned for its tight schedules and quick turnarounds. It is also knowingly translated into lassitudinuous characters that Leslie portrays in Wong’s films: the sultry inertia of Yuddy in Days of Being Wild, the melancholic immobility of Oy-yang in Ashes of Time, and the emotional fragility of Ho Po-wing in Happy Together, who is caught in an endless loop of passion, boredom and dejection.

In Wong’s films, Leslie frequently denies the camera his face, teases the edge of frame. Director and actor conspire to seduce: knowing the power of Leslie’s iconic gaze they refuse to give it up to the audience. The opening sequence of Days of Being Wild activates desire in a dance of performance, camera movement and editing. Leslie flirts with the camera first, leading the chase; the camera follows him from behind, he disappears and comes back into view beckoning with his jaunty butt wiggle: keep following me. Performer disappears, and character emerges Leslie (as Yuddy) flirts with Maggie (as Su Lizhen). Only one shot in this sequence reveals his gaze, and we are made conscious of being denied it by the moment when Yuddy’s eyes, directed away from the camera, burn a hole in Su Lizhen. In Happy Together, Leslie’s face appears first reduced in the lo-res passport photo of Ho Po-wing, and then half appears smothered in the pillow during the sex scene with Tony Leung Chiu-wai (Yiu-fai). The wild opening sequence in Ashes of Time contains two sets of matching shots, alternating between extreme close-ups of the left side of Leslie’s face (escaping the frame on the ‘malicious west’/left) and the right side of Tony Leung Ka-fai’s (escaping the frame on the ‘evil east’/right). These opposite yet (almost) equivalent shots render the screen cylindrical: stretching the faces in Buddhist symmetry towards some off-screen space, as if the opposing fragments might join and be whole. While seeming ‘the same’, there is a distinct difference in the framing of Leslie’s and Tony Leung Ka-fai’s faces. The first shot of Leslie reveals barely a quarter of his face, cut to three quarters of Tony’s. In the second set, both shots frame three quarters of Leslie and Tony’s faces. Even here, embedded in an elliptical and frenetic sequence of landscape and swordplay shots, the tease: Leslie’s flirtatious edging into frame.

The consistency of play with Leslie’s face is maintained across all three films. Wong’s use of the extreme close-up often pushes toward an exacting abstraction. In Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) there is a feral, unmotivated close-up of Warren Oates with a raven perched on his shoulder, both face and bird exceed the frame. This shot is out of nowhere: the film’s narrative does not answer it, Oates’ character is marginal and the camera is never this close to the film’s central characters (played by Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea). The face of Warren Oates is latent, readable. It invites interpretation and reveals nothing: it appears as a portent, but it does not signify. Leslie knows the power of such immobility and silence. In Happy Together, there is a shot that occurs after the lovers have parted. Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is working the door at a tango bar. Po-wing (Leslie) returns, hustling. Yiu-fai in slow-burn slo-mo, all torture and loss, bled of colour, watches after Po-wing with a desperate longing while Frank Zappa’s ‘Chunga’s Revenge’ throbs the beat. The camera pulls back, Yiu-fai outside framed in the back window, the camera unexpectedly inside the car with Po-wing. Leslie’s face fills the screen, Jimmy Dean mean and butter-wouldn’t-melt. He lights a cigarette and turns his look to Yiu-fai, suspended, hovering in the darkness behind him. He turns back, pausing in fleeting profile. Desire, longing and regret. Time passes, he turns again to the camera: liquid insouciance. In this liminal moment, Leslie’s expression doesn’t change. He can be read all ways. Leslie and Christopher Doyle’s camera make us see, without actually showing, emotion.

Robert Bresson, in Notes on the Cinematographer, rejects the professional actor in preference for ‘models’ unadulterated by acquired performance technique – ‘Models: all face’. Bresson references an essay by Montaigne in which one man encounters another, poorly dressed, in the snow. When questioned about the paucity of his attire by the first, the second man responds: ‘And have you not, good Sir, your face all bare? Imagine I am all face’.[7] In Bresson’s ascetic aesthetic, ‘all face’ is a state of grace, an expansive naturalness that cannot be learned. This concept is not limited to the face alone: implicit in the reference to Montaigne is a sense of the body as face or the body as the continuation of face. Given that Leslie’s iconicity so often exceeds the characters he plays, it seems reckless to suggest that he embodies a Bressonian naturalness. This assertion is particularly problematic given the extent of his dedication to the craft of performance (attested by Maggie Cheung’s account of Leslie endlessly practising the fall of his footsteps for Days of Being Wild). Yet Wong recognises and uses this contradiction; he directs the shift between actor-Leslie and model-Leslie. The close-up car shot from Happy Together and the opening sequence from Days of Being Wild derive their power from the tug between Leslie’s star charisma and an intrinsic candidness: Leslie in downtime.

leslie cheung in Days of Being Wild.jpg

Leslie Cheung in 'Days of Being Wild' (1990)

Wong plays with the register of Leslie’s ‘queerness’ to similar effect, moving between knowingness and artless gender ambiguity. The hotel scene with Andy Lau (Tide) in Days of Being Wild prefigures the openly gay love story in Happy Together. The tension of this scene is located in Tide’s attraction to Yuddy, and yet this is only read as potentially sexual via the extra-textual resonance of Leslie’s queerness; Leslie’s character (Yuddy) is oblivious to it. In the fleeting preceding scenes, Tide refuses the advances of a girl at the hotel; Yuddy collapses drunk in the street and is robbed by the (different) girl who accompanies him. Someone at the edge of frame witness the theft; it seems to be Tide, but he does not interfere. The first girl calls again at Tide’s hotel room, but this time Yuddy is there. Yuddy indicates to Tide that the girl is ‘good’, but Tide is openly disinterested. There is a palpable sense that Tide has not intervened in the theft so that Yuddy becomes dependent on him (like Yiu-fai in Happy Together who steals Po-wing’s passport to the same end). During the first half of the scene, Tide occupies the foreground, sporting a white singlet and glistening biceps. Yuddy sits on a chair in the background, legs apart, one leg swinging in a come-hither fashion. Feminised, he preens (a consistent Leslie motif in Wong films). Instinctively feeling the trap, Yuddy opens the door from where he sits and talks while looking out the door. When the focus shifts to Yuddy, he glances back at Tide, with the quasi pick-up line, ‘Have I met you before?’ The confined hotel room in the Philippines shares its crumbling baroque aspects with Yiu-fai’s quarters in Buenos Aires (Leslie demands exotic locales).

In Ashes of Time, the ‘sex scene’ with Brigitte Lin is doubly knowing. Wong brings together Hong Kong cinema’s prime cross-dressers: girl-to-boy Brigitte and boy-to-girl Leslie. Brigitte plays Mu-rong Yin/Mu-rong Yang. Yang hires Oy-yang (Leslie) to kill Huang (Tony Leung Ka-fai) for not honouring his promise to marry Yang’s sister, Yin. Yin hires Oy-yang to kill her brother Yang, fearing that he intends to kill her beloved, Huang. In a schizophrenic, gender-splitting sequence of shots, Mu-rong (switching between Yin and Yang), drunk on ‘happy-go-lucky life’ wine, erotically strokes Oy-yang’s fully clothed body. Oy-yang appears unmoved by the physical contact and his voiceover reveals that he is remembering the touch of his true love. Leslie’s extra-textual face tests and teases: whose touch do I like most: girl/Yin or boy/Yang?

The third film, Happy Together, is explicitly gay, as if Wong could not resist giving Leslie the opportunity to play a contemporary gay character (his only other distinctly gay role was in Farewell My Concubine, and Dieyi’s gayness had a very specific socio-historical context). When Tony Leung Chiu-wai had difficulty with the love scenes, Leslie, with characteristic flair, supposedly alluded to the issues he had performing sex scenes with women for so many years. Yet Wong claimed that since the story is a universal love story, Happy Together should not be considered a ‘queer’ film. Wong’s motivation was not clear: his apparent desire to be inclusive – love exceeds the boundaries of sexuality – could be (and was) understood as retrograde defensiveness. For many, Wong’s ‘denial’ was disappointing, the film was extremely resonant for Asian queer subcultures deprived of mainstream representation. It also followed that Leslie, whose sexuality had been an open secret or many years, publicly honoured his long-time lover at a concert performance in the same year as the film’s release.

The idea of ‘universal love’ is central however, to Wong’s cinema. All his characters long for love and fear it, ‘want more intimate contact but refuse it, in the end they build their utopia’ on an imaginary vision, a dream, an expectation.[8] In the three Leslie films, the visions of utopia belong to and elude his characters: the tropical palm trees and the legless bird in Days of Being Wild, the cherry blossoms in Ashes of Time, and the Iguazú Falls in Happy Together. Wong’s legendary use of music also loops into the coda of utopias. Songs are out of time and place; the rhythms of other worlds are conduits for characters escaping (often through dance) the sticky heat of Hong Kong, the ho-hum of everyday life, their aloneness. The most recognised, consistent and repetitive use of utopic song is Faye Wong’s ‘California Dreaming’ theme in Chungking Express.

Xavier Cougar (Days of Being Wild), Astor Piazolla and Caetano Veloso (Happy Together), the musical echoes of Wong’s Latino literary sources, inflect the Leslie films (Ashes of Time is the only Wong film to be scored). Leslie’s dance sequence in Days of Being Wild starts at the end of his meditation on the legless bird, the bird that won’t stop flying until it dies. Preening in the mirror, self-satisfied with the accuracy of this metaphor, Leslie dances in boxers and singlet. A magnetic dance, the dance of someone whose greatest satisfaction is his sensual self, a dance that invites attention, but provides no space for a partner. Compare this with the tango sequence in Happy Together, the only scenes that make the film’s title ring true. Within the confines of Yiu-fai’s room, Po-wing teaches him to tango. Cut to a cold, isolating urban landscape. Cut back to Yiu-fai and Po-wing dancing on the black-and-white tiled floor of the kitchen. The bleak colours of the preceding landscape shot leak into this one, all the fire is in the dance itself: proximity, laughter, passion. This is Leslie’s only moment of true contact in any of Wong’s films.

Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in Happy Together - on the rooftop

Leslie Cheung (foreground) and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in 'Happy Together' (1997)

While Leslie’s characters cannot hold onto love, Leslie himself embodies its universality. The availability of the adored, androgynous star is best captured in his dialogue-perfect line from He’s a Woman, She’s a Man: ‘Whatever you are – boy or girl – it doesn’t matter. I only know that I love you.’ Wong plays with the slippery tensions inherent in this ‘availability’: Leslie is available to everyone, boys and girls, and ultimately, to nobody. Yuddy, desired by all, desires only an unattainable reunion with his natural mother (the tropical palm trees come to represent the Philippines, his mother’s love and, eventually, his own death); Oy-yang, the agent who ‘facilitates’ everybody’s killing needs, cannot return himself to love (she dies, without him, in the land of the cherry blossoms); and Po-wing, servicing tricks but unable to allow himself to served by love, never accompanies Yiu-fai to the Iguazú Falls. Wong shows, but refuses to ‘capture’, the essential Leslie: elusive, teasing, slipping away from the camera and his audience in search of impossible beauty, or running away from his own.

Clare Stewart grew up in a small town without a cinema and has been overcompensating ever since. For 25 years she’s been doing what she loves most – connecting films and filmmakers with audiences. She is now a creative and development consultant and an elected member of the BAFTA Film Committee where she also serves on the Learning, Inclusion and Talent Committee. As Director of BFI London Film Festival and BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival (2012–17 editions), she increased audiences, elevated the international position of the Festivals, advocated new and emerging talent, and promoted action on diversity and inclusion. She was previously Festival Director, Sydney Film Festival (2007–11), the inaugural Head of Film Programmes at ACMI (2002–06) and held various roles at the Australian Film Institute (1996–2001) and the Melbourne Cinémathèque (1995–2005). Clare has served on the World Economic Forum’s Global Advisory Council for the Creative Economies (2014–16), is a previous recipient of the Queen's Trust Award for Young Australians and a Women and Hollywood Trailblazer Award for her work promoting diversity and gender parity in the film industry.

Don't miss the Leslie trilogy, screening at ACMI


[1] D. Bordwell, ‘Avant-pop Cinema’, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2000, p. 261-281

[2] As of early 2021, Wong Kar Wai has directed eleven films.

[3] N. Roddick, ‘The Roddick Interview: Wong Kar Wai', 1997, accessed 7 September 2003

[4] D. Bordwell, p. 272.

[5] E. Cozarinsky (translated by G. Waldman & R. Christ), Borges in/and/on Film, Lumen Books, New York, 1988, p. 16. Cozarinsky cites this passage from Borges’ Evaristo Carriego, ‘The Palermo Section of Buenos Aires’: ‘To recapture that almost static prehistory would be to foolishly weave a chronicle of infinitesimal process … the most direct means, according to cinematographic procedure, would be to propose a continuation of discontinuous images.’

[6] L. Cheung, quoted in F. Dannen & B. Long (eds), Hong Kong Babylon: An Insider’s Guide to the Hollywood of the East, Faber & Faber, London, 1997, p. 77.

[7] R. Bresson (translated by J. Griffin), Notes on the Cinematographer, Quartet Books, London, 1986, p. 30.

[8] Peggy Chiao Hsiung-ping, ‘Happy Together: Hong Kong’s Absence’, Cinemaya No 38, 1997, p. 20.

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