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Alone with Dieyi in the Dark: an excerpt from Firelight of a Different Colour: The Life and Times of Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing

1993 was the most productive and, in terms of both quality and financial gain, the most successful, year Leslie ever had in the film industry. It opened with the screening on New Year’s Day of what was perhaps Leslie’s greatest achievement, the film he had been working on for the last five months, Farewell My Concubine. This was the movie through which he would achieve cinematic fame outside Asia and the wider Chinese world and which has, more than any other, become the monument to his talent. Director Chen Kaige’s masterpiece, it is an almost perfect film, breathtaking in its beauty and in the bravery of its making. Its visual impact is matched by the depth of the issues it plumbs and its highly detailed reconstruction of a story spanning fifty years of Chinese history. In Farewell My Concubine, Leslie’s genius came to full flower.

Alone with Dieyi in the Dark: an excerpt from Firelight of a Different Colour: The Life and Times of Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing
Firelight of a Different Colour: The Life and Times of Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing, Nigel Collett (Signal 8 Press, February 2014)

The movie is based on a Chinese novel of similar name written in 1979 by Lilian Lee. There had long been plans to put the story on the big screen, though it had been made into a two part miniseries by RTHK in 1981. Leslie had been approached to star in it as far back as 1983, and Lee had always envisaged him playing its principal role, the Peking opera star Cheng Dieyi, who, in the story, is famous throughout China for his portrayal of female roles and in particular that of the Concubine in the opera Farewell My Concubine. The film revolves around Cheng Dieyi’s unrequited love for his lifelong friend Xiaolou, the male lead who plays the Concubine’s King.

Rights to the film were owned by the Taiwanese-funded Tomson Company, whose boss and leading producer was Hsu Feng, female star of the kung fu film A Touch of Zen. Hsu was a rich, dynamic, and creative woman, known in Hong Kong as the Goddess of Gamblers for her habit of placing huge bets at the casino table. She determined to make the story, initially asking the highly renowned mainland Chinese director Chen Kaige to direct. He was already renowned for films such as Yellow Earth, The Big Parade, King of the Children, and Life on a String, the last of which had been entered for the Cannes film festival, but he turned her down, as he thought that both the script and the novel were shallow and that they failed to handle the Cultural Revolution properly. Hsu Feng then turned to the director Ann Hui, who asked Golden Harvest to release Jackie Chan to star, but the studio feared his involvement in a story featuring homosexuality and refused her. An attempt was made to get John Lone, star of The Last Emperor, to play the principal role, but contractual terms could not be agreed. Ann Hui gave up, so Hsu approached Chen Kaige again, and this time he agreed, on the basis that he could have the script re-written to alter the ending and to widen what had hitherto been a story with two principal characters into a triangular tale.

Chen approached Leslie, who had by then become so secure in his career that he was willing this time round to risk the part of Cheng Dieyi. The two met in Hong Kong in July 1992 and discussed the part. Initially, Chen was not convinced that Leslie was really suitable, but Leslie had no doubts. He was attracted by the prospect of working with such a highly acclaimed director and the renowned Chinese co-stars he had recruited; this was exactly the sort of artistic endeavour to which he had aspired when he retired from singing. He was also attracted by the chance to work in a film that was a collaboration between the Hong Kong, Chinese, and Taiwanese industries. The film was a first in that respect, and Leslie believed that it would be highly significant both for the future of the Hong Kong industry and for his own career. Luckily, he had read the novel some ten or so years before and had loved it. Its themes of unrequited same-sex love, of betrayal and loss moved him strongly. From the start he saw himself as Cheng Dieyi, telling Chen Kaige that Dieyi was, like himself, a person who did not distinguish between acting and real life and who, also like him, was a man in whose soul both male and female components vied. Chen Kaige was persuaded and Leslie got the part.

There ensued the most intensive period of preparation that Leslie was ever to undertake for a film. For the first time, he set foot on the Mainland, flying up to Beijing in August 1992 to join the cast and crew and to study both the Mandarin language in which the film was to be made and the techniques of Peking opera. He lived for six weeks with a Chinese family while studying for four hours every day with the top opera teachers in Beijing, Zhang Manling and Shi Yansheng. He had met only Cantonese opera so far and the music and highly stylised form of Peking opera were completely unknown to him. His part called for him to act the role of the Concubine in a believably professional manner, so by dint of vast patience and grinding practice he learned the body movements, the hand gestures, the footsteps and above all the mental attitude that were necessary for the role. He could not sing the part, as his tenor voice could not reach the high registers it required, but he lip-synched perfectly to match the professional singers who sang in his stead.

All this was despite Leslie’s very real fears of venturing into the power of the Communist state, a system that only a few decades before had destroyed his family. He had neither colleagues nor friends in the Chinese film world and found himself cold-shouldered on his arrival in Beijing. His fellow actors and crew at first affected to despise this southern Chinese pop singer with no record, in their eyes, of serious acting. But his friendly, unassuming nature, the way he made no distinction between himself and others, whatever their status, and above all his professionalism, won them over and contempt soon turned to admiration and praise. His professionalism impressed the cast and crew, who noted that Leslie never forgot his lines; some of them commented later that he took more on his shoulders than the director. Lei Han, who played his apprentice Xaio Si, later remembered that there was no other actor on the set that respected his work as much as Leslie did and spoke of a scene in which Leslie played the concubine on stage. As his Mandarin was still not too good, he did it again and again. After a few takes, Chen Kaige was happy with the result, but Leslie himself was not and kept going till he felt it was perfect. It was only after more than thirty takes that he stepped down from the stage. The cast and crew remarked that Leslie always treated his fellow actors with kindness, often feeding those living in hostel accommodation at his suite in the Shangri-la Hotel. He was admired for the ease and openness of his relationship with Daffy, for he responded honestly to questions about his partner and amazed everyone by not trying to hide the fact that they were lovers.

His most difficult relationships were with the two Chinese stars, Zhang Fengyi, whose part (the role Jackie Chan had turned down) was that of the actor Duan Xiaolou, who always played the King, and Gong Li, who played Juxian, Duan’s prostitute wife. Zhang had a history of playing earthy, peasant types and found it difficult to adapt to a role where he was the object of the affections of another man. It took a lot of effort on Leslie’s part to break through his reserve, either on or off stage. Gong Li was a much more glamorous star, who had made her name in films like Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, and she could on occasion behave in ways more reminiscent of a Hollywood star, objecting to direction and absenting herself from the set. She did not take kindly, at first, to second billing behind Leslie, and it was in part to make her accept the role that Chen Kaige had expanded the script. Yet, as filming progressed and as she watched Leslie’s dedication and attention to detail, she too warmed to him and the two became friends.

The film traces the life and career of Cheng Dieyi from 1925, when his mother delivers him to an opera troupe in Peking. She abandons her son there and is never seen again. Dieyi is small, sweet-natured and pretty as well as very talented. He is in need of protection, which he gets from the slightly older and bigger Duan Xiaolou. Dieyi’s size and voice mark him out for the female roles (which were all, at the time, played by men) but initially he resists this, refusing to sing any line indicating that he is a woman and enduring much punishment as a result. Finally broken, he sings the female part. The two friends slowly establish themselves as stars, making their name particularly as the King and his Concubine, Ru Yi, in the classic opera Farewell My Concubine, a story in which the Concubine sacrifices herself by committing suicide with her King’s sword as he loses his kingdom. Off stage, as Dieyi grows older he finds that he has fallen in love with his childhood friend Xiaolou, but only on stage as Concubine Ru Yi can he allow himself to show this love. In effect, his stage life takes over his real world. Offstage, all the joys of stardom ensue, but the idyll is smashed when Xiaolou marries the prostitute Juxian. Dieyi is shut out and in despair gives himself to a wealthy opera patron, a man with whom he begins an affair. This unhappy ménage survives the Japanese occupation, during which their troupe is forced to perform for their country’s enemies, but it collapses after the fall of nationalist China. Dieyi is forced out of the opera by his own apprentice and, during the struggle sessions they endure during the Cultural Revolution, he, Xiaolou and Juxian all betray each other. The film ends in Hong Kong, where Xiaolou and Deiyi, by now old men, once again find themselves preparing to re-enact their roles, this time presented in the Coliseum as relics of a bygone age. At the point in the story where the Concubine seizes the sword, Dieyi finally merges his two lives and wields it to kill himself.

The story can be seen on many levels. It tells vividly the tragic political history of China from the decades between the Wars up until the late 1970s. The scenes of self-destruction it includes when it reaches the Cultural Revolution almost had it banned in China. It is also the story of a unique part of Chinese culture, Peking opera, and of its ruin by the Communists. On the personal level, it is a tale of loyalty, loss and failure; all the major characters betray and are betrayed in their turn. It is a story of love and of the sacrifices love may require; both Dieyi and Juxian ultimately give their lives for Xiaolou. On top of all this, the film is a story in which the love of one man for another is shown to be just as deep, just as real as that of a woman. Though Chen Kaige often needed to play down the importance of his film’s homosexual theme, for political or PR reasons, its message was clear, and in the China of 1993, his was a very brave film indeed.

Taking the part of Cheng Dieyi was also personally a brave act for Leslie, for he was placing his career on the line in playing an effeminate star of female opera parts who is in love with the masculine hero. To many, the link between actor and role was unavoidable, made more so by the double linkage of life and art as Leslie identified with Cheng Dieyi and Cheng Dieyi identified with the Concubine. As was noted in the press some four years later, the femininity he had sparingly displayed till then burst out on the screen. A line spoken of Dieyi in the film was often said later of Leslie: “Has he not blurred the distinction between theatre and life … male and female?” It was not Dieyi who hid under the Concubine’s makeup, but Leslie.

Leslie brought to this part all his experiences of love and loss in the gay world. He played his unrequited love for his partner as a tragedy of a high order, but at the same time illustrated his plight in every aspect of his daily life. The small ways in which Dieyi fusses about the insouciant object of his love are painful to watch. Until Juxian arrives on the scene, Dieyi tries to protect Xiaolou from all the minor problems that beset his life; he worries over him, he checks his clothes, he all but acts as his wife. None of this, of course, can survive Xialou’s marriage, and the storms, tantrums, jealousies, pettiness, and the final despair in Dieyi’s inevitable loss, well up out of Leslie’s own experience. As does the radiant happiness that Dieyi but briefly enjoys when he has both the adoration of his fans that stardom brings and the companionship of the man he loves.

Farewell My Concubine was hugely expensive, costing some HK$30 million to make, and great attention was paid to detail. Filming was gruelling, the scenes on stage taken again and again at the instigation of both director and actors. The elaborate costumes and heavy makeup took two hours each day to prepare and made the street scenes, shot in Beijing in the heat and dust of the late summer, very hard to bear. The emotion that permeated every scene made the film psychologically very draining. Leslie threw his soul into the part. Chen Kaige recalled an incident at the end of the scene where, in despair at ever winning the love of Xiaolou, Dieyi gives his body to his wealthy opera patron, from whose house he returns home by rickshaw, broken by the sorrow and horror of what he has done. Chen cut the film as the rickshaw curtain was pulled back to expose the distraught Dieyi. The film stopped rolling, but Leslie sat motionless in the rickshaw, his makeup washed away by the tears which streamed down his cheeks, his eyes empty and black with despair. Chen had the studio lights turned off and the crew departed in silence, leaving Leslie alone with Dieyi in the dark.


Reprinted with permission.

Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. His latest book, Firelight of a Different Colour, about Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung, has just been released.