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A Career in Full Plume

As 'Temptress Moon' boosts the profile of Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung, he's reviving a long-dormant singing career.

June 22, 1997|Kevin Thomas | 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.

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