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Remembering Leslie Cheung

Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild (photo courtesy of PhotoFest)

Leslie Cheung in “Days of Being Wild” (photo courtesy of PhotoFest)

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

On April 1, 2003, Leslie Cheung ended his life by leaping from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in central Hong Kong. He was forty-six years old. On the tenth anniversary of his death, fans from around the world made two million origami cranes in his honor—a Guinness World Record. A teen heartthrob Cantopop star before adding film acting to his repertoire, Cheung was a celebrity not only in Hong Kong, but also across East Asia and beyond. In a 2005 poll conducted in honor of the centenary of Chinese cinema, Hong Kongers named him their favorite all-time actor, beating out the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. A 2010 CNN International poll ranked him as the world’s third most iconic musical artist, behind Michael Jackson and the Beatles. His legions of fans run the gamut from millennials to retirees.

Last summer, around the time of our annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, I began receiving emails from near and far asking if we were planning a tribute to Cheung for our 2013 festival. In response to this unprecedented outpouring, I decided to include four classic Cheung performances in this year’s lineup, including three 35mm prints from the Hong Kong Film Archive that are otherwise unavailable in any form in the United States.

In keeping with the crowdsourced nature of this tribute, we left the selection of the final film up to our audience. A Facebook poll allowed fans to choose between three of Cheung’s films that were directed by the great Wong Kar-wai: Ashes of Time, Days of Being Wild, and Happy Together.

The winner, Days of Being Wild, couldn’t be a more appropriate choice. It was a pivotal film in both the actor’s and the director’s careers, garnering each his first Hong Kong Film Award. As film critic J. Hoberman put it in the Village Voice, “Days of Being Wild is the movie with which Wong Kar-wai became Wong Kar-wai—the most influential, passionate, and romantic of neo-new-wave directors.” The first of Wong’s many collaborations with master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film radiates the dreamlike atmosphere of lush romanticism and longing for lost time that would become his trademark in more famous films, such as In the Mood for Love and 2046. At a time when Hong Kong was known for action movies, broad comedies, and kung fu flicks, this luxuriously paced portrait of wounded hearts and lost souls looked like and felt like nothing else.

In a beautifully nostalgic version of 1960s Hong Kong, Cheung stars as Yuddy (York in English), a charming playboy (Hong Kong film critic Edmund Lee calls him “James Dean reincarnated”) who breaks hearts while seeking to leave his foster mother and solve the mystery surrounding his real one. That Yuddy compares himself to a “bird without legs” of Chinese legend, which can only land when it dies, is especially poignant considering the depression Cheung struggled with throughout his all-too-short life.

Days of Being Wild will be shown in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on Friday, August 2, at 7 pm, and Sunday, August 4, at 2 pm. Admission is free, with seats available on a first-come, first-served basis.

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Pang Ho-Cheung Brings it All Back Home

Vulgaria

Vulgaria

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from England to China opened up a huge new market—1.3 billion strong—for Hong Kong movies. But reaching Chinese audiences requires compromise. Politically controversial topics must be avoided, for instance, and the sex and violence have to be toned down. Often, films are made in Mandarin, which means losing the Cantonese wordplay that gives Hong Kong comedies their punch.

While many Hong Kong filmmakers have accepted these terms in return for more lucrative paydays, others, like Pang Ho-Cheung, are flipping the script. His latest film, Vulgaria (which is being screened on June 14 and 16 as part of the Freer’s 18th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival), is a flagrantly raunchy comedy. Chapman To stars as To Wai-Cheung, a movie producer who sheds his artistic integrity and eventually his dignity to make a softcore porn that he hopes will revive his career. From its opening scene, in which To regales aghast film students with a lengthy, obscene monologue about his job, it’s clear that Pang has no designs on the mainland market.

In this and other ways, Vulgaria is a throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema. To’s project is a remake of the Shaw Brothers’ 1976 erotic film Confession of a Concubine. That film’s original star, Siu Yam-Yam (aka Yum Yum Shaw), gamely plays herself in Vulgaria, agreeing to appear in the new version (albeit with her head digitally attached to a younger actress’ body.) Shot on the fly without a complete script—as was done in the old days—Vulgaria bounces along with the anarchic energy of the Hui Brothers’ comedies of the ’70s and ’80s, flinging random subplots and absurd jokes in all directions.

Indulging in favorite Hong Kong pastimes such as making obscene puns and mocking mainlanders, Vulgaria is, like stinky tofu or fried chicken-feet, a local delicacy that will delight as many people as it disgusts. If, in recent years, people have complained that Hong Kong movies are becoming watered down, Pang’s filthy love letter to the city and its cinema may be an attempt to reclaim Hong Kong’s distinctiveness, one dirty joke at a time.

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