Review: ‘Firelight of a Different Colour’

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Firelight of a Different Colour: The Life and Times of Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, by Nigel Collett, Signal 8 Press (February 25, 2014), 486pp, bibliography, notes and index

firelightWhile many of Leslie Cheung’s songs, recordings, concerts and films were widely known outside of Southeast Asia during the 1980s and 1990s, the impact of his death by suicide in 2003 on fans in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea probably wasn’t deeply understood by most of the English-speaking world.

Yet, in the years leading up to and including the British handover of Kong Kong to China in 1997, Cheung was in many ways the very embodiment of the colony’s film and recording industries.

Collett’s thoroughly researched Firelight of a Different Colour is both a tribute to Leslie and a likely resource for all future biographies and documentaries about the widely respected actor and highly popular Cantopop star.  For many English-speaking readers, the book is a wonderful, in-depth introduction to Leslie, Hong Kong’s entertainment business, and to the difficulties of gay performers within the colony’s compact and often-hostile media environment.

During the months leading up to his death, Leslie was plagued by clinical depression, fatigue and multiple physical ailments that friends and fans couldn’t help but notice. Yet, they were unprepared to lose him to anything other than early retirement. His death created shock waves followed by an outpouring of grief that, even now, suggests Collett has left “the pain still too raw for a full biography” from the viewpoint of the family and many fans.

Collett sees this book as provisional and fully hopes it will be superseded by true biographies and assessments. The strength of the book for those future works comes from its encyclopedic approach to Leslie’s life and career along with the collected footnotes and bibliography. The weakness–which is a small one at that–also comes from a linear and occasionally exhaustive presentation of facts (large and small) that includes lengthy plot summaries of films.

Inasmuch as films, concerts, and other celebrity events are strongly visual events for fans, the book would have been well served with the inclusion of personal and professional photographs of Leslie and other film and recording stars, concert venues, album covers, movie posters and production stills from “Farewell, My Concubine,” “A Better Tomorrow” and other films.

On balance, Firelight of a Different Colour represents the author’s very diligent attempt to re-energize the memories of fans, introduce Leslie to a wider audience, and gather the resources of another era for the writers and researchers of the future. It’s a must read for fans and a heart-felt introduction to those meeting Leslie for the first time within its pages.

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4 responses

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  2. Malcolm–did we read the same book? If I didn’t know much about Leslie Cheung before reading the biography, I would still be mystified as to why he was one of the greatest megastars of all time in Asia. There wasn’t sufficient discussion and analysis of Cantopop, Hong Kong film, and the development of megaconcerts and tours in the book to give Westerners any clue as to why Cheung is held in such high esteem in all quarters in Asia. The book was a mere chronology of Cheung’s life (which has already been documented in English on several Leslie Cheung websites) sprinkled with Mr. Collette’s suppositions about what life “must have been like” for Leslie Cheung as a “gay man” in Hong Kong. Although the love of Leslie’s life was a man, interestingly enough when it came time for him to characterize his sexual orientation he was quick to use the term bisexual. Why not take Leslie at his word? By the time of that interview with film critic and friend Roger Corliss forTime Magazine Cheung would have thought long and hard about where he fit on the spectrum of sexual orientation. That he was able to exploit every aspect of it from hypermasculine to a charming female drag, often within the same performance, was testament to the fluidity with which he viewed the issue. In a very real sense, gender was a performance for Cheung (thank you Judith Butler for introducing this concept) and if anyone understood that, he certainly did. This is the type of analysis that is missing from Mr. Collette’s book and one that would have opened up the wonders of Leslie Cheung as a unique performer for Western audiences. Many Western fans of Cheung’s films don’t even realize that he was one of Hong Kong’s most popular male singers and in so many ways changed the face of Cantopop by his recordings, music videos, and live performances. I wish I had the skill in written Chinese, Cantonese, and Mandarin needed to produce a proper biography of Leslie Cheung in any language, because I would be the first to take on this daunting, but extremely rewarding challenge. If anyone who does not read Chinese wants information about Leslie Cheung, I would still point them to the rich resources on several English-language fan sites over Nigel’s book any day.

    • This is a very reasonable comment. A lot is missing from the book, including an analysis of the facts either from the author’s knowledge/research or from interviews with others who have studied the music, the films and the stars of Hong Kong. I gathered that some of the book’s limitations came about because the family (according to the author) didn’t want a book to be done. Had they supported the project, perhaps they would have spoken for publication and given the author access to materials and photographs that weren’t available to him. As to why the author didn’t conduct interviews and relied on secondary sources, I can’t say. Was he unable to gain access to the people he needed to talk to because he didn’t have the fame/clout to talk to such people, or did those people keep away from him to avoid upsetting the family? In terms of secondary sources, the author had quite a lengthy list of notes and, when considering what to say about this book, I saw that as a valuable resource to others who would, I hoped, ultimately produce the kind of biography the star deserves.

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