What ‘Nomad,’ Leslie Cheung’s weirdest film, tells us about Hong Kong identity

Apr 01, 2020

‘Nomad’ captured a city obsessed with importing pop culture from elsewhere, a message that still rings true today.

Today marks 17 years since Leslie Cheung, one of Hong Kong’s greatest actors and singers, leapt to his death after a prolonged battle with depression.

Despite being openly bisexual at a time when coming out was taboo, Cheung stayed in the public eye as a mainstream celebrity in the 1980s and ’90s, capturing the hearts of both men and (especially) women. He was the archetype of the modern, fashionable heartbreaker.

Leslie Cheung in “Days of Being Wild” (1990).
Leslie Cheung in “Days of Being Wild” (1990). / Photo: Alamy

Few films show off that side of Cheung better than the 1982 film Nomad, revived last month at New York’s Metrograph theater as part of the “To Hong Kong With Love” series.

(Read more: Leslie Cheung taught me the power of being brave and unapologetic)

It also happens to be one of the strangest films from that era, when Hong Kong film blossomed with creativity and artists sought to capture a city searching for its own identity—a message that still rings true today.

When the Rising Sun captured the hearts of Hong Kong’s youth

Directed by Wong Kar-wai mentor Patrick Tam, Nomad, which was nominated for best film at the second Hong Kong Film Awards, is a colorful and cynical look at the leisure-filled lives of 1980s Hong Kong’s young and beautiful.

The story follows a group of friends as they flit between cramped apartments and lazy days spent sunning on the city’s outlying islands.

Leslie Cheung (left) and Cecilia Yip in “Nomad.”
Leslie Cheung (left) and Cecilia Yip in “Nomad.” / Photo: Century Motion Picture

Their dialogue never amounts to anything beyond charming wordplay. Most scenes never contribute to a larger plot, instead leading up to a titillating or comic set piece, like when a gaggle of teenage swimmers make off with a lifeguard’s swimsuit.

And yet, thanks to Bill Wong’s flamboyant cinematography and the bright humor of its cast, it’s impossible to look away.

The film follows a group of friends who spend their days lazing on Hong Kong’s beaches.
The film follows a group of friends who spend their days lazing on Hong Kong’s beaches. / Photo: Century Motion Picture

More than anything else, Nomad seems preoccupied with the growing influence of Japanese culture on Hong Kong’s youth. The city was still a colony under British rule but remained culturally bound to China. Stuck between the two worlds, it was only natural for kids to end up enamored with boom-era Japan, which at the dawn of the 1980s was brimming with cultural cache.

This is exemplified by Cheung’s character, Louis, a wealthy young man with an interest in Japanese fashion, and his friends, who all study Japanese, meet Japanese boyfriends, and visit music shops festooned with the Rising Sun flag.

As Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China approached, directors grappled with what it meant to become part of China with landmark films such as 1996’s Comrades: Almost A Love Story and 1997’s Made in Hong Kong.

(Read more: ‘Made in Hong Kong,’ almost lost to history, finally gets a U.S. release 23 years later)

But Nomad, with its obsession over Japan’s cultural dominance, feels like part of a different era, when China was just beginning its long sprint of growth, the Hong Kong handover felt eons away, and Japan was being hailed as the world’s third superpower (after the United States and Soviet Union).

The conflict between Japan and Hong Kong in the film comes to a head with a sudden seaside sword fight between the local slacker gang and their new Japanese friends, who are revealed to be members of an underground communist cell.

The film ends with a bizarre sword fight on a Hong Kong beach.
The film ends with a bizarre sword fight on a Hong Kong beach. / Photo: Century Motion Picture

Cheung’s Louis and his girlfriend Tomato (Cecilia Yip) are left alone in each other’s arms on a blood-soaked beach. It’s a bizarre ending to an otherwise lighthearted film—and a taste of the tightly choreographed action that defined so many Hong Kong films of the 1980s.

A city searching for a soul of its own

As the source of Hong Kong’s anxieties has shifted to its relationship with China, it’s remarkable to note that the mainland has still never amassed as much soft power over Hong Kong as Japan did in the era of Nomad.

Today, the youth of Hong Kong are still more likely to look afar for their favorite stars. But instead of Japanese ones, bedroom walls are now likely to be plastered with South Korean celebrities.

Fans of the K-pop boy band Highlight at a concert at Hong Kong International Airport in June 2018.
Fans of the K-pop boy band Highlight at a concert at Hong Kong International Airport in June 2018. / Photo: Roy Issa/SCMP

The top three TV shows on Hong Kong’s Netflix are all Korean dramas, and the Mnet Asian Music Awards, the most-viewed K-pop award show, has been held in Hong Kong every year since 2012, with the exception of 2019’s protest-related pullout.

(Read more: The Chinese kids risking it all for a chance at K-pop fame)

As Hong Kong looks toward its total incorporation into China in 2047, the city’s cultural output and tastes will inevitably shift again.

It’s worth remembering a time, though, when the city’s shifting identity and pan-Asian milieu of tastes brought forth a multifaceted leading man like Leslie Cheung and a weird, wonderful film like Nomad.

Hong KongCinemaLeslie Cheung