Maggie Cheung, like all screen sublimities, inhabits multiple temporalities: She is past, present, and future. The filmmaker Olivier Assayas once described the actress as “an up-to-date version of an old-fashioned movie star.” He elaborated when I spoke to him a decade ago about Clean (2004), the second of two projects he made with Cheung, following Irma Vep (1996), a meta-movie in which she plays herself: “When I first met Maggie” — at the Venice Film Festival in 1994 — “I thought she had something incredibly modern, incredibly now. But she also had the specific glow of a movie star, this kind of thing that radiates in film.” Over the next three weeks, you can bask in the actress’s luminosity at Metrograph, which is screening twenty of her films (a fraction of her output) on 35mm.
By the time of Assayas’s initial encounter with Cheung, she was eleven years into an immensely successful career in Hong Kong, where she was born in 1964. Schooled in the U.K., she returned to HK at age eighteen, placing first runner-up in the Miss Hong Kong pageant in 1983, an event that served as her entrée to film. Her breakthrough role was as May, the capricious girlfriend in Police Story (1985), a high-slapstick actioner starring and directed by Jackie Chan. (As reported in Susan Dominus’s excellent November 2004 profile of the actress in the New York Times Magazine, Chan remarked that when he first saw Cheung on television, he thought of her as someone who “wouldn’t mind me kicking her down a flight of stairs.”) She reprised the role in the next two Police Story installments, released in 1988 and 1992, and starred in scores of other films during this time, the boom years of the HK film industry; Police Story 2 was only one of eleven films Cheung made in ’88.
That year also marked the beginning of one of her signal collaborations, with the voluptuary maestro Wong Kar-wai. Of the five films they’ve made, none highlights the actress’s incandescence quite like In the Mood for Love (2000), a movie whose defining visual element is the slo-mo languid movement of Cheung’s cheongsam-clad, exquisitely coifed figure through narrow corridors and dark, rain-slicked streets, and up and down endless flights of stairs. Opening in 1962 in Hong Kong and closing at Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, in 1966, In the Mood for Love is a fractured memory piece about an oblique romance between two neighbors in a cramped apartment building, Mrs. Chan (Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), who discover that his wife and her husband are having an affair. “The past is something he could see but not touch,” explains an intertitle about Chow; similarly, physical contact with the woman he’s growing besotted with — even the brush of fingers — remains tantalizingly elusive. The air electric around her, Cheung’s character collapses then and now.
Cheung’s extraordinary ability to bring the past to the present (and vice versa) also marks Stanley Kwan’s lovely Center Stage (1991), a biopic about Ruan Lingyu, the silent-screen divinity of pre-revolutionary Chinese cinema who killed herself at age 24, in 1935. Here Cheung plays (at least) three roles: herself, appearing intermittently in segments in which she and Kwan speak to Ruan scholars and contemporaries; Ruan, both on and off the set; and the characters the icon performed in the various films re-created in Kwan’s project. It’s not enough to say that Cheung seamlessly moves in and out of these myriad personas. She also does something rarer: She freezes time and thaws it, making bygone eras fluid, lucid, and intoxicating. Enraptured while watching Cheung-as-Ruan at a swank nightclub, elegantly dancing to a samba-playing band, I thought of what Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Greta Garbo: “To watch her is to achieve direct, cleansed perception of something which, like a flower or a fold of silk, is raptly, unassertively and beautifully itself.”
In Assayas’s limber and funny Irma Vep, which he wrote expressly for the actress, Cheung nimbly accomplishes another seemingly impossible, or at least paradoxical, task: demystifying her own superstardom in Asia while also bolstering it for those audience members then unfamiliar with her work (as I was at the time of the film’s 1997 release in the U.S.). Arriving in the midst of a chaotic, fractious Paris film office after a twelve-hour flight from Hong Kong, Maggie (or, perhaps more accurately, “Maggie”) calmly and diligently goes to work as the star of a bedeviled remake of Les Vampires, Louis Feuillade’s famed 1915 silent serial. Directing the redo is René Vidal, a washed-up Nouvelle Vague director played by that film movement’s most paradigmatic star, Jean-Pierre Léaud. “You can be Irma Vep because you have the grace,” the unstable auteur tells his leading lady after they watch a clip from The Heroic Trio (1993), Johnnie To’s wuxia marvel, in which Cheung plays a chopper-riding bounty hunter. Every second that Cheung is onscreen in Assayas’s movie bears out René’s assessment.
Clean, which Assayas and Cheung made after their brief marriage ended in 2001, was also conceived solely for the actress. She plays Emily Wang, a junkie struggling to kick her dope habit, get her life together, and reclaim her young son. For her compassionate, complex portrayal of this imperfect woman, Cheung won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 2004, becoming the first Asian to be so honored. The victory, as Cheung explained to me when I spoke to her in New York when she was promoting the film, gave her confidence: “Now I dare to think that I can make any choice [in roles]. I’ve been doing this for twentysomething years, so this is a moment when you either start to fade out or become stronger as an actress. Now I feel I can be an actress for a long time, which I didn’t dare to think I could be.”
But Clean is Cheung’s last major film to date; she is now primarily focused on composing and recording music. It may be accurate to speak of her movie career in the past tense, but she will always exist in the present perfect.
‘Maggie Cheung: Center Stage’