“I'm proud of being me”: Maggie Cheung, from As Tears Go By to Irma Vep

As Irma Vep came to cinemas in 1997, we looked back through its captivating star’s career, with lashings of praise from directors Olivier Assayas, Wong Kar Wai and Stanley Kwan.

14 April 2022

By Bérénice Reynaud

Irma Vep (1997)
Sight and Sound

In the muggy, sensuous atmosphere of Hong Kong, a cynical playboy seduces a young soda vendor by telling her to look at his watch: "For one minute before three, on April 16th, 1960, we have been friends. Because of you, I'll remember that one minute."

This article first appeared in the March 1997 issue of Sight and Sound

For the playboy, it is just another affair to forget; but the girl will remember, carrying on her shoulders, in her gait, on her face, the excruciating weight of lost love. The film was Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild, and Maggie Cheung, a rising starlet better known for her roles in action movies, was cast as the lovelorn vendor.

Released in 1991, Days of Being Wild initially did only moderately well at the local box office. Yet within months it was recognised as a landmark in new Chinese cinema, marking a turning point in Cheung’s career. Two years later, she was the first Chinese actress to win the Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival for her performance in Stanley Kwan’s Actress (Ruan Lingyu, aka Centre Stage). Now she stars in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep.

But though Cheung is today Hong Kong’s most popular actress , their tabloids remain mean to her. After nearly 70 films in 12 years, why doesn’t she find a good husband and retire? Starting as a cute female decoy in action films and action comedies (she was Jackie Chan’s decorative girlfriend in Police Story I and II), she graduated to screwball comedies and films in which she was the hero and performed stunts (such as the witty remake of King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn, produced and co-directed by Tsui Hark, or Johnny To’s hilarious Heroic Trio). More recently she has worked with some of the most sophisticated auteurs of Hong Kong cinema: Wong Kar Wai, Stanley Kwan, Yim Ho and Ann Hui.

Days of Being Wild (1990)

Yet “Maggie” (as her fans affectionately call her) stands out against western clichés about Chinese actresses. No Orientalist fantasy, she is a modern Hong Kong woman, a complex mirror image of post-colonial dilemmas: displacement, racist misrepresentation and partial loss of cultural identity (she speaks English better than she can read Chinese characters). Unlike such mainland stars as Gong Li and Siqin Gaowa, she has never formally trained as an actress and her acting depends more on emotion than technique. “My first dream was to be a hairdresser, then a model,” she admits laughingly.

Cheung was born in Hong Kong, but when she was six her family emigrated to Kent in England, where she was the only Chinese kid on the block and in school: “I was teased a lot.” Working briefly in a bookstore, she realised that as a woman of colour she would always be “second choice” for better things, even in the modelling industry.

At 17 she went back to Hong Kong, where she became a successful cover girl, but quickly suffered from “overexposure” (“I did McDonald’s, I did hair, I did clothes”). She entered one of the beauty pageants that constitute the main recruiting ground for starlets in Hong Kong and as first runner-up was offered a part in a light comedy only two weeks after the competition. “At that time directors thought that Maggie Cheung was very beautiful, but couldn’t be a good actress,” remembers Stanley Kwan. “I was mostly asked to do reaction shots,” Cheung comments, “like opening my eyes and my mouth wide when frightened.”

Then in 1988, Wong Kar Wai, who was preparing his first film, As Tears Go By, a gangster movie with unusual twists, offered her the part of the protagonist’s love interest. “At that time, she didn’t have much ambition for her acting career, because of the kind of roles she was offered,” reminisces Wong. “I noticed that, if given a lot of dialogue, she would become very nervous; then I cut most of her lines, so she could concentrate on her body language, which is something she was very good at.”

As Tears Go By (1988)

“Wong Kar Wai opened that door for me,” says Cheung. “He made me understand that acting is not just about expressions, but comes from inside. The whole body should follow, not just the face or eyes.” Stanley Kwan, known as a sensitive director of actresses, was completely taken by Cheung’s performance in As Tears Go By. He cast her in Full Moon in New York (1989) as a tough-as-nails yet vulnerable Hong Kong woman living in New York who meets two other immigrants, Sylvia Chang from Taiwan and Siqin Gaowa from mainland China.

The film won Cheung her first Golden Horse Award (Taiwan’s government-sponsored film awards), and 1990 was a glorious year. Ann Hui cast her as her stand-in in Song of the Exile, a delicately crafted autobiographical recounting of Hui’s uneasy relationship with her Japanese-born mother. Then Cheung gathered a lot of praise in a supporting role as Lin Ching-hsia’s best friend in Yim Ho’s romantic/historical epic Red Dust, before exploring a more expressionist mode of acting as an immigrant turned murderous schizophrenic in Clara Law’s Farewell China. Yet none of these achievements had prepared viewers for the emotional depth reached by Cheung in Days of Being Wild.

“As my own screenwriter, I often change the characters during the shoot according to the qualities I find in the actors,” says Wong Kar Wai. Adds Cheung: “He spent a lot of time talking to us in between takes, to explore our minds, our feelings. Once I told him that if l were rejected by a boyfriend, I would have too much pride to go back to him and beg him. A few days later we had to shoot that scene in which I ask Leslie Cheung to take me back. I said ‘I can’t do it!’ Kar Wai just answered ‘Let’s roll the camera and we’ll see.’ So I went up to Leslie and told him ‘Can I come back to you?’ and he replied ‘I’m not the right guy for you.’ I felt tears in my eyes, but didn’t want to cry as Kar Wai had told me: ‘Whatever you do, don’t cry!’ So I was trying to hold my tears, and he got the expression he wanted.”

“Maggie’s performance depends a lot on how good the director is,” comments Kwan. “She has to love the character; she can combine the knowledge she has of herself and her intimate feelings for the character in a very direct way. She can’t really read Chinese, but she’s a very good listener. She totally absorbs what the director tells her. After all those years playing mindless comedies, she has changed a lot. Now she wouldn’t take a part she had reservations about. But since her acting comes from the heart, the director has to help her to draw back, to create a subtle distance between her and the character.”

Irma Vep (1996)

This distance – controlling a character or being consumed by it – is the subject of Kwan’s Actress, a sensuous homage to Ruan Lingyu, the most famous Chinese star of the silent era. Ruan was a very soulful, emotional, sensitive performer, with an iconic presence that was compared to Garbo’s. In 1934, she was cast in Cai Chusheng’s New Women as a writer who, being the victim of slander, commits suicide. A few months later, with her own private life subjected to malicious gossip, Ruan killed herself. She was 25.

For this part, Kwan was thinking of casting pop singer Anita Mui, who had starred as a romantic ghost in his Rouge (1988); however, as a protest against Tiananmen Square, Mui had sworn never to return to China. Since Actress required some location shooting in Shanghai, Kwan decided to work with Cheung: “She turned out to be the best choice, because she saw the role as a big challenge, and worked very hard. More importantly, she became quite involved with the character of Ruan Lingyu.”

Actress skilfully weaves several levels of representation: archival excerpts of Ruan’s extant films; Cheung impersonating Ruan in the same excerpts; staged reconstructions of scenes of lost films; the narrative of Ruan’s life and death; interviews with survivors of the Golden Age of the Shanghai studios; and finally unscripted conversations between Kwan and Cheung about her relationship to the character and legend of Ruan Lingyu. These levels shift and merge: the modern Hong Kong woman is transformed into a mythical figure of the 30s; a classic scene is recreated in colour; and Cheung reveals how, in Ruan’s acting, the fine line between life and fiction eventually collapsed. We see how, at the end of the death scene in New Women, Ruan, overwhelmed by grief, cries uncontrollably on the hospital bed of her character.

Yet in Actress Cheung elegantly maintains the gap separating her from her model. When it is her turn to play dead in Ruan’s coffin, the camera shows her gasping for air, smiling. In a previous sequence Cheung had to ‘recreate’ one of Ruan’s most famous scenes in Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess (1934), in which the heroine, forced into prostitution, smokes defiantly in front of a potential John. Instead of trying for a “carbon copy” of the original film, Cheung and Kwan staged it “in a light-hearted way, like a private joke, not to see if l could really do a Ruan Lingyu imitation,” says Cheung. “People laugh when they see that scene. But the humour was already there. I find Ruan very funny in that moment, I love her body language, it’s so cute!”

Irma Vep (1997)

In Actress, Ruan’s elusive mystery, her enduring seduction are suggested, never explained or contained, and instead of disappearing under the shadow of the legend, Cheung shines, in all her strength and mastery, beside Ruan. Her beauty and performance are simply luminous, especially in one of the last sequences, when Ruan drinks and dances with her friends from the Shanghai film industry, her body made almost unreal by her decision to die that very night. The slow implosion of Days of Being Wild has reached a stage of pure radiance.

There are no auditions in Hong Kong, yet Cheung, courageously, decided to read for a part in Michael Mann’s Heat in December 1994. Caught in an ugly clash of cultures, Cheung never lost her poise: “Mann wanted me to do one scene in eight different ways. In the first take, I was very calm, then he told me, ‘I want you to lose it, go wild, mad.’ I told him, ‘I can’t sell my acting like that.’ He got very angry and said, ‘How do you work in Hong Kong? Can’t you give the director what he wants?’ I said, ‘Yes, I would be prepared to give him what he wants the day of the shoot, but they wouldn’t ask me to do it in eight different ways in one day. I don’t work through formulas. I just do it from the heart.”’ She laughs: “They ended up giving the part to a blonde!”

Not all western directors are insensitive to Cheung’s style and allure. The same year, Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time was premiered at the Venice Film Festival. In this film, Cheung delivers a stunning monologue as a woman who gradually discovers that she has missed her chance of true love, that the man she once rejected but still wants will never come. Her screen presence, though brief, provides a moment of quiet beauty in the turmoil of wasted lives. The actress who once couldn’t remember her lines did her part in a single take.

In Venice, she briefly met French director Olivier Assayas: “It was a vision,” recalls the latter. “I didn’t think contemporary cinema could still produce an actress with such an aura. I felt like a little kid looking at the great stars of the past.” A year later, Assayas was working on a screenplay about a filmmaker asked to remake Feuillade’s Les Vampires, and Cheung’s persona inspired him to flesh out the character of the actress in the ‘Irma Vep’ role (a jewel thief originally played by the French star Musidora). Thinking she would not accept a part in a low-budget French movie, he went through frustrating casting sessions in Hong Kong, until he was again introduced to Cheung. “It was her,” recounts Assayas. “She was exactly right for the role, and I thought, if she doesn’t do it, there’s no reason for me to make the film.” Cheung was as seduced at the prospect of working with Assayas: “I really appreciate Olivier, because he doesn’t want me to pretend I am more Chinese than I really am. I am quite westernised, since I have lived in England. I wondered if he had a more ‘typical Chinese girl’ in mind. And he told me, ‘Don’t ever do that. Just be you.”’

Irma Vep (1997)

Assayas describes the shooting of Irma Vep as “an idyllic experience, because of Maggie’s luminous, almost magical performance. She has an incredible intuition, she knows how to insert herself in a situation, she listens. You tell her one word, one idea, and she immediately assimilates it, makes it more alive, and gives it back to you with an incredible lightness and grace. It may be a cliché, but you have the feeling of playing on a Stradivarius. I was constantly amazed by her pure intelligence, her sweetness and receptiveness. She combined the best of both worlds: the total freedom of independent cinema, and the sovereign poise of a great star.”

In Irma Vep, Cheung indeed plays herself, a popular Hong Kong actress landing with flair and elegance amidst a French film crew who don’t really know what to make of her. Director Jean-Pierre Leaud sees her as an exotic version of Musidora, costumier Nathalie Richard falls in love with her, hangers-out admire her beauty, others think she simply doesn’t fit. At the end, she is asked to leave the production. Yet breathtaking images keep haunting those who have surrounded her, until they view the black-and-white footage of the film-within-the-film: as a sensuous and mysterious Irma Vep, Cheung joins the legendary pantheon of the silent era – Louise Brooks, Lillian Gish, Marlene Dietrich – her face and body transcended into light and beauty, pure cinematic signifiers.

After a warm reception at Cannes, Irma Vep has proved a crowd-pleaser at international festivals, including Toronto, Vienna, Sarajevo and London. Cheung now travels more in the West, though she continues to work in Hong Kong. “It has been wonderful,” says Kwan, “to watch Maggie gradually reach maturity as an artist. I think at some point she’ll want to direct, because she will not be satisfied with working on a single character in a film.” Cheung acknowledges this desire, but doesn’t feel “ready” yet. However, she admires actress/producer/director Sylvia Chang: “She has a family, she’s still beautiful, she’s done so much in her career. I would like to have her life!”

Cheung is still discovering her own strength, but her ‘vulnerability’ is also an asset: it is the sign of a modern woman who risks gaining her sense of identity and self-worth from what she does rather than from a man’s attention. What makes her proud? ”I’m very honest to my work, to myself and my audience,” she says. “I never pretend I am something I am not. And when I play a part, I always give it as much as I can. That’s honesty too. I’m proud of being me.”

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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