But it's almost symbolic how we started out with a film and then finished with one. It's something beautiful between us, even if there is no more marriage.
It's been almost a year since Maggie Cheung joined the Asia Society and other New York media to speak about her heroin addicted role in the independent movie, Clean, which garnered her a Best Actress award at the 2004 Cannes International Film Festival. This month Clean hits theaters and has been receiving rave reviews both here and abroad. As a Vietnamese American I'm enamored by her style, grace and old school class that seems to be missing in today's genre of Hollywood actresses.
Born in Hong Kong, Maggie Cheung has made a career for herself and pioneered the way for other Asian actresses to make it in the world of film. She doesn't take just any role, but one that speaks to her on many different levels. "It took me the first 10 years of my career to learn what acting is, what filmmaking is," said the 41-year-old-actress who got her start as a model and Ms. Hong Kong pageant winner "to avoid going to university." The untrained actress, with the trademark sultry voice and disarming beauty, added, "The first 65 films I made were really my lessons."
Maggie is best known to the American audience as Jackie Chan's girlfriend in the popular Police Story series. "I started making films, then I started making some more. I didn't know how to say No to anyone". After realizing that she had become stereotyped as the weak, ridiculous woman in the film version of Police Story, Cheung sought out more dramatic roles such as her work with director Wong-Kar Wai in As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love. Most notable was her role in Center Stage when she became the first Chinese performer to win a Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival.
Eventually she returned to work with Jackie Chan in the movie Police Story 3: Supercop, and then put her martial arts skills to the test in the sci-fi thriller Heroic Trio and its sequel Executioners.
In Clean, Maggie plays drug addicted Emily Wang, half of a former rock star duo. When her other half is found dead of a drug overdose in a motel room on the outskirts of a small town, Emily is arrested for possession of drugs and put into prison. Everything in her life falls to pieces. When she is released six months later, she decides to start her life over in Paris where she once lived. Emily's one obsession is her son. He is living on the other side of the world with her in-laws. All Emily has to do to win the boy back is rebuild her life from the ruins of a rock and roll past..and go "clean". When there's no other choice; you change.
According to director and her former husband, Olivier Assayas, "Clean" started with writing a story and characters and then a screenplay. The story is fiction, but it goes back to the desire I've had to write something for Maggie Cheung. I wanted to construct a project around her where she is not a Chinese woman in a Western film or playing some archetype of a Chinese woman. In many ways, Maggie is more Western than Chinese and I wanted to create a character that any actress could play."
Cheung and Assayas" break-up was, by both their accounts, amicable, and Cheung doesn"t blame Assayas at all. But on top of the usual agonies of separation, there was the added complication that Assayas had just completed the script for Clean. "We had one conversation which I remember clearly. We talked about separating and what was going to happen and then it came up: Are we still going to make the film? I said, "If you"re still into it, it"s easier than what everybody else might think.""
Maggie is content with the outcome of the film. "It"s almost symbolic how we started out with a film and then finished with one. It"s something beautiful between us, even if there is no more marriage."
Interestingly, several years earlier "Clean", Producer Niv Fichman of Rhombus Media in Toronto and writer/director/actor Don McKellar were dining with Maggie Cheung at the top of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. Fichman and McKellar were hoping to interest Maggie in a role in a film they were about to shoot. Accompanying the actress was Assayas who was about to become her husband. Maggie ultimately declined the role, but the dinner was a great success with Assayas teaching Fichman everything he would ever need to know about Cognac. Years later, when Assayas was thinking about shooting part of Clean in Canada, he suggested to Edouard Weil that they call Rhombus Media.
"When I got the call," Fichman recalls, "I was immediately interested because I already liked Olivier and because I very much respect his work and also because I love Maggie. It was a lovely connection and felt so right from the beginning. There was total trust."
The connection evidently transcends through producer, director and actor, as the prestigious judges at the Cannes Film Festival agreed. So what are Maggie's plans for the future? Is she planning to cash in on her Cannes prestige? "Having done so much before, I"m kind of lazy now. Because I"ve done so many different roles, I don"t want to repeat myself. It"s getting harder and harder to find something interesting. You never know, I might never make a film again."
L Nguygen is 1½ generation Vietnamese American. She loves to write on Asian celebrities who maintain their principles and do not get caught up in the Hollywood mainstream.