A Career in Full Plume

Kevin Thomas is a Times staff writer

Leslie Cheung, the Hong Kong superstar and pop singer, has never been busier. He has a new film, Chen Kaige's exquisite "Temptress Moon." He is in the midst of a worldwide singing tour marking his return to the concert stage after a seven-year hiatus. And he is reaping building international acclaim for his remarkable acting talent, which spans classic screwball comedy to martial arts fantasies to the epic tragedy of Chen's 1993 "Farewell My Concubine."

In "Temptress Moon," which opens with the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Cheung plays a shirttail relative of an extravagantly decadent noble family and becomes obsessed with exacting revenge for their rotten treatment of him.

"Don't you think I'm more or less like John Malkovich in 'Dangerous Liaisons'?" Cheung asked of his role, sitting earlier this spring in the luxurious presidential suite of the Biltmore Hotel, where he was staying while appearing at the Shrine Auditorium. The comparison is apt, for Cheung's avenger specifically targets the family's beautiful heiress, played by Gong Li, the leading lady of "Farewell My Concubine."

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It comes as a surprise to learn that Cheung is 41, for he's so often described as being boyishly handsome and looks at least a decade younger. What's not so surprising is that he's a world-class charmer, secure in his stardom, much like the veterans of Hollywood's Golden Age. He can focus on you with the intensity of a Kirk Douglas, establish an instant rapport and regale you with so many off-the-record remarks you have to steer him back on course. Cheung has the knack of turning an interview into an entertaining conversation.

"There were a lot of misfortunes in making 'Temptress Moon,' " Cheung recalled. "Chen changed the leading actress several times. Three actually faced the camera. Then they would vanish after two or three days. There were five or six before he asked Gong Li. It was a hell of a lot of work for me because I had to go through all of these auditions with them, and they didn't pay me extra!"

Cheung said these changes of casting added five or six months to the production schedule, a development that, he says, made "Temptress Moon" twice as costly as the more elaborate "Farewell My Concubine."

Yet he makes it clear that it's worth whatever it takes to work for Chen. After all, Cheung had spent six months in Beijing learning Mandarin, not to mention mastering the performing style of Chinese opera, to appear in "Farewell My Concubine."

"I'm very proud that I now speak Mandarin with perfect diction. I can't think of one other Hong Kong actor or actress who speaks Mandarin except for Josephine Siu," said Cheung, referring to the gifted comedian, a close friend.

By chance Chen Kaige arrived in Los Angeles to promote "Temptress Moon" and was able to catch Cheung's Shrine show, "Leslie in Concert," which was a mainstream Vegas-type revue performed primarily in Cantonese.

A showman to the core, Cheung came out in a white plume headdress reminiscent of Josephine Baker and a long feathery cape with a train a la Liberace but shed them quickly for a knockout two-hour performance marked by variety, passion and energy and a strong enough voice and presence equal to the size of the Shrine.

He can play honest emotion against glitz and had the young women squealing and shrieking, never more so than in the show's daring climax, in which he dons a pair of red sequin high heels to dance briefly with a handsome chorus boy.

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Chatting in his West Hollywood hotel suite, Chen spoke enthusiastically of seeing Cheung perform onstage for the first time.

"He was wonderful," said Chen, a tall, affable man with a good command of English. "He was wonderful. He really has that skill in telling us what the song is about. He's a very special personality. He has a power inside himself. He's a genius, and I love to work with him."

While Chen suspects that Cheung will drop the red shoes number when he plays China in August, he thought it was terrific.

"Leslie is saying that as a performer, 'I can be whatever I want to be sexually.' As an actor you can live different lives, change your personality. You can amuse yourself as well as your audience."

Chen confirmed everything Cheung had said about the casting and scheduling problems in making "Temptress Moon," adding: "It was even worse than that. I thought the film would be a chance to create a new star. Do I have to use Gong Li every time I make a movie? Unfortunately, nobody was really perfect for the part except Gong Li. We had already shot 40 days when we cast her--and then we had to wait till she finished 'Shanghai Triad.' "

Of "Temptress Moon," a tale of love and revenge that stretches into the glittery, corrupt Shanghai of the '20s, Chen has said that he discovered the style of the film, the way he would go about expressing his characters' tempestuous emotions, while listening to a recording of a Keith Jarrett concert in Vienna.

" 'Temptress Moon' can be seen as a purely psychological drama, a story about male chauvinism and Chinese hierarchy, or a film about the coming of age of a woman," he said. Yet Chen wants audiences to see it as a story with application to contemporary China, which is perhaps why it remains banned in China.

Said Cheung: "After 'Farewell My Concubine,' Chen said to me, 'I want to make a movie especially for you.' There were some hectic times, but I still enjoyed working with him. He's obviously a very powerful man. If there would be a war, he's obviously going to be the general."

Hard work has clearly paid off for Cheung, who has already made some 70 films, among them a memorable dozen or so familiar to foreign film enthusiasts. Cheung has worked with a number of major Hong Kong directors, among them John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai (best known for "Chungking Express") and Stanley Kwan.

In Cheung's most recent film, "Happy Together," he and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai play lovers who have traveled to Argentina to seek new experiences. Wong Kar-Wai wrote and directed, winning the best director prize at the Cannes International Film Festival.

Cheung has high praise for other of his directors besides Chen: "John Woo is the most wonderful guy. He's concerned with very strong ties between men. Off the set he's a very nice person. In 'A Better Tomorrow,' I'm playing this lousy cop, a very stupid guy, who's just realized my big brother has killed our father. Woo told me to do whatever I wanted in the scene, so I punched a mirror and I cut my hand. He held my hand and started to cry. He has a heart.

"Wong is a very selfish director. He never really has a plan, he always goes over budget and over schedule, he never knows what he's going to do next. For an actor he's hard, but he's very talented." (During the arduous desert shoot of Wong's "Ashes of Time," Cheung suffered a scorpion bite.)

"If John makes masculine movies, Stanley makes feminine ones--women's pictures. As a man, I'm not really fond of working for him--unless someday he wants me to play a transvestite!"

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Cheung's own life would make a movie.

"My father was a famous tailor--the tailor king of Hong Kong," he said. "He made suits for Alfred Hitchcock, Marlon Brando, William Holden--all the big stars. I'm the youngest of 10 children, and I was brought up by my grandmother.

"It's kind of sad: Suddenly, my father was too busy for us, and my parents lived apart from us. I felt distant from them. He took a second wife, and for a while all three of them lived together. There was a lot of quarreling. It was a mess.

"I didn't want to get stuck in Hong Kong, so I asked my father for permission to go to school in England. I was there between 13 and 20. First, I went to boarding school, and then I went to Leeds University to study textile design. I was being the moral, obedient son. I love nice clothes, but I didn't want to be a designer. I had a relative who had a restaurant in South-End-on-Sea about three hours by car from London. I was still in boarding school when I started working there on weekends as a bartender. They had a band, and I became a part-time singer. It was lounge music. It was nothing serious, I was earning only 5 pounds a week."

Then Cheung's father suffered a stroke, leaving him paralyzed on one side, so when Cheung had returned to Hong Kong for summer vacation, his father hadn't recovered sufficiently when it came time for Cheung to go back to school in England.

"He wanted all his sons gathered around him," Cheung said. "This was the end of 1976 and early 1977. I had no plans; there I was, feeling like I was hanging in the middle of nowhere. My father didn't want me to go back, so I became a salesman for Levi jeans--that's right, Levi jeans--to make some money of my own.

"Some of my friends put my name in the Asian Amateur Singing Contest sponsored by a TV company. I won, and then I signed a contract with them to become a TV artist, a singer and an actor for TV serials. It was a very good school--you don't get blamed so much for your work on TV as you do on the big screen. I did thousands of hours of TV before getting into movies."

As a singer and as an actor Cheung became a major heartthrob, but he put his singing career on the back burner to concentrate on filmmaking. But now he's returning to performing with a vengeance. Before appearing in Los Angeles, he had done 24 shows in Hong Kong, two in Tokyo, one in Osaka, Japan, "swept through Southeast Asia" and played Atlantic City, N.J.; Toronto and Vancouver, Canada; and San Francisco. Europe would follow America, and then more shows in Asia. In August, he will play Beijing, Shanghai and Canton. "I enjoy every single concert," he said. Once you've seen him in action, you believe it.

In the early '90s, Cheung established residence in Vancouver, as have many Hong Kong citizens in anticipation of the British crown colony's return to China on July 1, and he now holds dual citizenship.

"If you're living in a stable country, you never think of becoming a citizen somewhere else, do you?" he said "You have to be prepared. I'm thinking about maybe living in London."

Wherever Cheung settles, he does not intend to slow down, even though he acknowledged: "I have to do something to become more relaxed. I have too little time for personal life and too much work. But after a month of doing nothing I would go crazy. I can't stop myself from working. I'm a workaholic. Life without work means nothing to me."

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