Leslie & Anita. On first names alone, they conjure iconic screen performances and pairings, love stories that transcend decades and genders, and a real-life friendship that spanned Hong Kong cinema’s golden 1980s and 90s. Both were the biggest pop stars of their day, along with being the most swoon-worthy film idols. Leslie Cheung earned his chops as the lead in Patrick Tam’s Nomad, considered one of the foundational films of the Hong Kong New Wave. Anita Mui’s first major role was fittingly opposite Leslie in the Shaw Brothers’ romance Behind the Yellow Line. While they had extraordinary success independently – Leslie with A Better Tomorrow, A Chinese Ghost Story, Farewell My Concubine; Anita with Rumble in the Bronx, Justice My Foot, The Heroic Trio – their intersections in Rouge and Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man have taken on legendary status after their deaths.
Both Leslie and Anita passed away 20 years ago, in 2003. Both were premature passings, both were occasions of very public collective grief. For Hong Kong, they were not just losses of beloved figures, but the symbolic passing of a golden age, when the city was at the top of the film world and every week seemed to churn out future classics. The uncanny parallels of their deaths also shined a spotlight on the two as Hong Kong’s most boundary-pushing entertainers who defied a very-mainstream industry’s expectations for gender and sexuality. Closeted for much of his career, Leslie was the subject of much gossip related to his homosexuality, attention he both courted and deflected. Meanwhile, Anita embodied what scholars have described as an “androgynous body,” strutting onstage as a “bad girl” and stealing scenes with suits and ties.
In celebration of Leslie and Anita, we present their two most famous collaborations, a Wong Kar-wai breakthrough with Leslie as lead and Anita providing the theme song, and a wuxia classic too rarely seen on the big screen. Viva divas!