New York’s Metrograph salutes iconic Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung

ScreenerBlog

Starting December 8, Hong Kong movie star Maggie Cheung receives a long-overdue 20-film retrospective at New York City’s Metrograph. For the first time in years, fans will be able to see Cheung's best work, including some of the landmark Asian masterpieces of the past four decades.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in England, Cheung first drew attention as a runner-up in the Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant. Television commercials led to a recurring role in a TV series, where her growing popularity won her a part as Jackie Chan's girlfriend in his Police Story series.

Cheung and other actresses complained at the time about what were called "flower vase" roles, parts in which they were asked only to look beautiful. Perhaps due to her cosmopolitan background, Cheung resisted Asian stereotypes, bringing a strong independent streak to inconsequential movies like It's a Drink! It's a Bomb! and Happy Ghost 3.

1992's Center Stage (Dec. 8 and 20), a biopic about the pre-World War II Chinese superstar Ruan Lingyu directed by Stanley Kwan, is often cited as her breakthrough role. In the careful, slow-paced drama, she captures Ruan's glowing beauty as well as her suicidal depression. But it was her performance as a lovelorn restaurant worker in Wong Kar Wai's As Tears Go By (Dec. 9 and 11) that showed the world just how emotionally direct and free she could be. Her ecstatic kiss with Andy Lau in a dockside phone booth marked a turning point in Hong Kong cinema.

Hong Kong cinema of the time may have had a reputation for macho martial arts and gangster shootouts, but it also found room for exquisite period romances and quirky present-day comedies. Cheung starred in an unofficial remake of Breakfast at Tiffany's called A Fishy Story; in the Taiwanese World War II weepie Red Dust (Dec. 12 and 21); and in the all-star flood-relief benefit comedy The Banquet. She also sparred with Stephen Chow in 1992 comedy All's Well, Ends Well, at one point imitating Madonna during her conical brassiere phase. (The film was so popular, it spawned a half-dozen sequels.)

Despite her unearthly beauty, Cheung projected a friendly, matter-of-fact demeanor and a bristly sense of humor that consistently won over filmgoers. She attracted the industry's best directors—Wong Kar Wai, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To, Clara Law, Sammo Hung, Peter Chan Ho Sun—even as she publicly criticized the industry for rushing out poor product.

The series, which will be screening exclusively 35mm prints, concentrates on Cheung's earlier, more mainstream successes. Police Story 2 (Dec. 11) ends with the notorious "bloody heads" outtakes reel. The delirious superhero adventure The Heroic Trio (Dec. 15) teams her with fellow superstars Anita Mui and Michelle Yeoh against supervillain Anthony Wong. The Iceman Cometh (Dec. 14) is really a showcase for extraordinary fights between Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah, although Cheung is delightful as a modern-day gold-digger trying to deal with 16th-century swordsmen suddenly transported to her time.

Missing from the series are some prestige projects like The Soong Sisters and the international co-production Chinese Box. (At the time, Cheung was harshly critical of director Wayne Wang.) Cheung was also outstanding as a ruthless killer in New Dragon Gate Inn, a remake of King Hu's wuxia classic.

Green Snake (Dec. 19), Tsui Hark's reworking of the famous Chinese folk story Madame White Snake, is one of the most beautiful and evocative movies of its era, despite its occasionally flimsy special effects. Cheung and Joey Wong play spirits who take human form to experience emotion. With an all-star cast, Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time deconstructs the wuxia genre. (Metrograph is showing Wong's 2008 version, Ashes of Time Redux, Dec. 17 and 19.) And Peter Chan's Comrades: Almost a Love Story (Dec. 17) is one of the decade's key romances. Paired with Leon Lai as one of two mainland immigrants trying to find a place in Hong Kong, Cheung gave a heartbreaking performance that caught the anxiety of the pending handover.

Cheung came to New York to do publicity for the Olivier Assayas drama Irma Vep (Dec. 16). (The two were married for a time.) She gave spirited interviews in her distinctive British-accented English, danced with abandon at parties, and disarmed anyone who spoke with her. She was as direct as ever in the movie, denouncing macho filmmakers and sexist attitudes even as she donned skintight latex to slink over Parisian rooftops.

She came back to New York with co-star Tony Leung Chiu Wai to promote Wong Kar Wai's acclaimed In the Mood for Love (Dec. 18 and 21), complaining about the cheongsams she had to wear, teasing Leung about his side career as a pop singer, and in general choosing to enjoy life over worrying about her work.

Cheung has always been a reluctant star, impatient with moviemakers, furious with gossip columnists, determined to act on her own terms. In recent years she made fewer and fewer movies, complaining about Zhang Yimou's Hero that "all he wanted me to do is cry." She was the first Asian to win Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for Clean (Dec. 16), which Assayas wrote and directed for her. In it she played a recovering heroin addict who tries to resurrect her musical career.

In 2010, Cheung attended the Museum of Modern Art premiere of Ten Thousand Waves, a multiscreen video installation by Isaac Julien in which she played the water goddess Mazu. "It was a very easy job," she said about her part. "I did it in like an afternoon. I thought, okay, this is not a movie movie, it's an art installation, so no questions asked. We don't need to know who am I or what's this thing about or what's the last scene, what's the next scene."

About acting in general, she said, "I've not been that faithful to myself. I've moved on to behind the camera and I'm learning editing. With acting, you have to struggle, you have to make things happen, get depressed. You have to know everything. When you're feeling it, it's a conscious thing. What is this scene, what am I feeling? If you are acting without having had those experiences in your life... Imagination can go a long way, but it's not real. You don't remember what it's like when your lover leaves you, you don't know what it's like when your dog dies, whatever."

Cheung's uncompromising honesty, her ability to connect on an emotional level with viewers, and her unique beauty make her one of the treasures of Hong Kong and world cinema.