It is, perhaps, a constant dilemma for cinephiles: understanding where popular cinema meets art? In many ways this question can be best epitomised in one of Cantonese cinema’s most enjoyable and memorable films, Stanley Kwan’s delicate ghost story Rouge (1988). The stars of its hauntingly beautiful sub-story which is, at heart, the focal point of the narrative, are Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui in roles that epitomised their careers. Both passed away ten years ago in tragic circumstances – Leslie Cheung committed suicide following severe depression and Anita Mui passed away after losing her battle with cervical cancer. In many ways their legacies reached beyond their musical endeavours (both were popular pop-stars) or film roles in that they were not only definitive stars of cinema, but also icons of their age.
Often characterised as Madonna of Asia (her film roles were far more varied, her media and paparazzi antics eminently comparable) Anita Mui was a star on and off screen with popularity and controversy seemingly co-existent. She won the award for Best Actress at the 1989 Hong Kong Film Awards for her role in Rouge and later that year starred with that film’s producer, Jackie Chan, in his huge budget box-office failure (although arguably the combination of kung-fu, stunts, comedy and gentle romance made it one of his most enjoyable light films) Miracles (1989). She would return to be a leading actress in Jackie Chan’s reasonably successful, pre Rush Hour (1998) break into the US market in Rumble in the Bronx (1995) as well as an excellent turn in Drunken Master 2 (1994). Her roles were constantly evolving. She appeared in a large number of films including a multitude of series sequels including Fight Back to School 3 (1993) with Stephen Chow, Tsui Hark’s A Better Tomorrow 3: Love & Death in Saigon (1989) with Chow Yun Fat, as well as starring with Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung in the two hugely enjoyable super heroine action flicks The Heroic Trio (1993) and its sequel Executioners (1993).
Leslie Cheung’s popularity as a singer and actor were virtually unequalled. One of Hong Kong’s most famous singers, his roles as an actor were as varied as they were fascinating and engaging. Always the screen icon with his handsome looks, Leslie Cheung found his screen career range from early performances in Category III films to dramas, fantasies, comedies and action films. In many ways his reputation outside of Hong Kong was best known for his work with John Woo (A Better Tomorrow 1 and 2 [1986/7], Once a Thief ) and Wong Kar Wai, a partnership that boosted his art house reputation, which was further enhanced internationally with his lead in Palm d’Or winner, Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993). The three films he made with Wong Kar Wai demonstrated his versatility: Days of Being Wild (1991) (for which he received a Best Actor award), Happy Together (1997) and the eminently rewatchable martial art-house Ashes of Time (1994), a film whose lengthy shooting time gave Cheung the opportunity to be involved in a mocking comic martial arts fantasy spin-off, Eagle Shooting Heroes (Jeffrey Lau ).
Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui are having their lives and works remembered at the Terracotta Far East Film Festival in London at the Prince Charles Cinema and ICA from the 6 – 15 June. Check the website for details of the screenings.