Maggie Cheung: The Lady Is A Vamp

You name it, she's played it: kick-ass action hero, art-house heart-throb, chopsocky sex bomb... Jonathan Romney meets Maggie Cheung to find out how a nice Cantonese girl from Bromley became 'the most famous woman in China'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Maggie Cheung's is one of the stranger itineraries of world cinema - from Hong Kong to Paris and back again, via Bromley. A superstar in Hong Kong cinema since the mid-Eighties, Cheung Man-Yuk, to use her Cantonese name, has over the last decade become one of the few globally famous faces of Asian film. Art-house regulars will know her as the desperate housewife par excellence in Wong Kar-Wai's extra-marital romance In the Mood for Love (2000). Last year, she had an American box-office No 1 with Zhang Yimou's martial-arts epic Hero, in which she was a louchely glamorous assassin, executing a dazzling aerial ballet with mainland Chinese ingénue Zhang Ziyi amid a swirling leaf storm.

Maggie Cheung's is one of the stranger itineraries of world cinema - from Hong Kong to Paris and back again, via Bromley. A superstar in Hong Kong cinema since the mid-Eighties, Cheung Man-Yuk, to use her Cantonese name, has over the last decade become one of the few globally famous faces of Asian film. Art-house regulars will know her as the desperate housewife par excellence in Wong Kar-Wai's extra-marital romance In the Mood for Love (2000). Last year, she had an American box-office No 1 with Zhang Yimou's martial-arts epic Hero, in which she was a louchely glamorous assassin, executing a dazzling aerial ballet with mainland Chinese ingénue Zhang Ziyi amid a swirling leaf storm.

But there's also the European Maggie Cheung - the star who married then divorced a French director, then reunited with him professionally to make one more film. Cheung's liaison with Olivier Assayas might be seen as a symbolic alliance between Eastern and Western art cinemas.

They married after making Irma Vep (1996), in which Cheung played herself - or at least, the Hong Kong action goddess "Maggie Cheung" - in a movie-about-movies that is among the most smitten celluloid love letters ever written by a director to a star. Now divorced, Assayas and Cheung have reunited for the truly cosmopolitan Clean, a film set in Canada, Paris and London, in which Cheung plays Emily Wang, a heroin-addicted rock'n'roll widow. It's an intense, grittily unglamorous role that won Cheung the Best Actress prize in Cannes last year.

Maggie Cheung's legendary status precedes her - in Asia, as a result of her Cannes award, Assayas says, "she's become some kind of living legend," and The New York Times recently speculated that she is "possibly the most famous woman in China". However, the Maggie Cheung who came to Britain to promote Clean earlier this year is another Maggie again - the South London girl who grew up in West Wickham, near Bromley. As she chats volubly, working her way through a packet of Dunhills, there are distinct remnants of a Beckenham twang in an accent that combines Chinese English and showbiz transatlantic, tinged with the odd Valley Girl inflexion. Looking considerably younger than her 40 years, she has a delicate prettiness - as opposed to the feral beauty of her recent screen appearances - and is friendly and approachable in a very unstarry way (although with stars, you always wonder whether approachability has a touch of charm-school professionalism). She sports a deliberately unsoigné, faintly Eighties-trash look of cowboy boots, tight jeans and a sweatshirt that flops disconcertingly off one shoulder; she could easily be working in PR, rather than the object of it.

Although she's now widely known for the dazzling swordfight sequences in Hero, Maggie Cheung is not an action star first and foremost. She has plenty of genre pictures to her name, but doesn't enjoy making them. "I hate it when they say, 'Go pow pow pow!' It's like, yuk." Apart from Hero, her only swordfighting films that she rates are her collaborations with legendary Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, New Dragon Inn and Green Snake - although she feels the latter, in which she played a serpent in a femme fatale's body, "came out too weird to be good". In any case, the derring-do in Hero "is all about cheating and camera-work. I try to avoid the training. I like using my brain more than my body." Cheung enjoyed the balletic soaring through the air, "but I hated all the swordfighting stuff, and all the swshh! swshh!..." It takes a dancer's training to excel at that, she says, which her fellow Chinese divas Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh both have. "When I watch them move, it's so much more light. There's me going..." - she mimes an elephantine stomp - "Pum! pum! pum! and they're going, 'Ah ha haaa...'" - her voice rises an octave in an impression of ethereal grace.

It took Cheung a while to get around to real acting, she admits, after years playing innocent-next-door roles. Her first real success was as foil to the madcap Jackie Chan in Police Story (1988), playing his girlfriend May: she makes her entrance shoving a cream cake in his face. Cheung played May three times and, she says wearily, "I guess I had fun doing those films. Jackie said to me three years ago, 'Let's do another Police Story and this time May and I will get married and maybe May will die.' I said, 'I don't know - it's not what I want to do right now.' He seemed to understand... and not understand. I don't know."

Since the early Nineties, however, Cheung has taken more demanding roles. In 1992 she won the Best Actress award in Berlin for her lead in Stanley Kwan's Centre Stage, as the tragic silent-film actress Ruan Lingyu, sometimes called "the Chinese Garbo". In particular, she is closely associated with Hong Kong cult deity Wong Kar-Wai. Getting cast in his first feature As Tears Go By (1988) was, she says, "the first time I really felt someone ask something of me". Wong surprised her by cutting most of her lines and making her concentrate on her movements, an approach which paid off in his sultry Days of Being Wild (1991): low on dialogue, high on rainfall and implied emotion, the film thrives on Cheung's introverted moodiness. By the time of In the Mood for Love, it was nearly all physical: Cheung signals suppressed passions on humid nights, slinking down narrow corridors in a selection of figure-hugging traditional cheongsams; the effect is so memorable that one highly serious film-studies website devotes much space to a theoretically-tinged eulogy of the signifying power of Cheung's bottom.

The other film to make her an international high-brow heart-throb was Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep. Assayas first met Cheung backstage at the Venice Film Festival, and recalls being struck by her aura: "As a film star she was radically different from anything I had experienced with French actresses. She had this modern version of glamour and it started me thinking along the lines of, would I make different films if I was working with different actors?" He wrote the film with Cheung in mind, never thinking she would take the part, especially since, tired of the pressures of stardom, she had taken a two-year sabbatical and was proving elusive. But it soon became clear she was the only possible candidate: "I met a lot of the great Hong Kong actresses of that time but none of them had the same thing Maggie had."

Irma Vep at once celebrates Cheung's glamour as a cat-suited, cat-burgling vamp, and demystifies her: she's seen looking lost and politely pissed-off in a frenzied Paris production office, ignored and barely understanding what's going on. Cheung says it was a fair representation of her experience during the shoot, given that she was barely known in Europe at the time: "I'm suddenly in this place, and no one knows who I am apart from the director. The crew were like, 'Who's she?'" Whatever chemistry traditionally happens between actresses and directors on the shoots of French art films, Cheung and Assayas ended up marrying, and she moved to Paris. But conjugal life in international showbiz - even at the high-art end of the scale - is precarious, and the couple couldn't have timed their commitments worse. Cheung returned to Hong Kong to make In the Mood for Love; the shoot was supposed to last three months, but Wong Kar-Wai's famously extemporising methods ended up detaining her for 15. "I was hating Wong Kar-Wai more and more every day," she says. "I thought, 'You're making everyone suffer, you're ruining my life.'" Meanwhile Assayas was occupied for months with his own costume drama about a Limoges porcelain dynasty, and whatever other pressures came into play, the couple split up in 1999, finally divorcing last year.

If Irma Vep is a film buff's ode to a star, Clean might be considered Assayas's post-infatuation film: Irma Vep, he says, "was very much about the fantasies you build on the surface of movie stars. But somehow I always felt I owed it to Maggie to give her a part that would use her deeper, more human side." That part is Emily, the wife of a minor-league indie-rocker who overdoses while on tour. As Cheung plays her, Emily is much more sympathetically mundane than the Courtney-style monster we keep hearing she is, but she's clearly one of life's second-raters, reluctantly learning she can't live forever off her cheekbones and tarnished aura. It's one of those cases where, quality of performance apart, a glamorous star wins credit points simply for daring to look tired.

"Nice word, tired!" Cheung laughs. "I watch some films and think, 'Why can't the actress put that beauty thing down?' I knew I'd just have to let go and put dark circles under my eyes every day. I needed to suffer a bit to get into Emily. I was just sitting in the corner and smoking my fag and feeling a bit depressed all the time."

Clean is a far cry from the dreams Cheung once had of cinema; when she started out, she has said, her main concern was with the glitter. Born in Hong Kong, she moved to London with her family when she was eight, her father working as a printer. She returned to Hong Kong at 17 with her mother, paying for her own ticket with savings from a bookshop in London's Trocadero. She stayed behind, landed some modelling work, then was first runner-up in the Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant: "The winner goes to Miss Universe, the first runner-up goes to London for Miss World - which was great for me, because I didn't have money for a ticket at the time." After two years as a TV presenter, she started work as a contract star for the Shaw Brothers studio in the uniquely frenzied atmosphere of Eighties Hong Kong cinema. The film industry then was like a supercharged version of the Hollywood studio system in the Thirties and Forties, with contracted actors obliged to appear in whatever films came their way.

But Hollywood never approached the intensity of Hong Kong's factory output: Cheung has an astonishing 81 films to her credit, 72 of them between her debut in 1984 and her sabbatical 10 years later. At one point, she was shooting five at once: for 10 days, apparently, never sleeping in a bed but catching 40 winks on set between takes.

"At the time," Cheung admits, "I didn't know what was a good film and a bad film" - as witness such dubious credits as Double Fattiness, It's a Drink, It's a Bomb and How To Pick Girls Up aka Love Hungry Suicide Squad. It was a highly disorganised business too, she remembers: "At the beginning of my career, I don't think I even read a script for three years and by then I'd already made 20 films. There were no good writers, so a lot of directors would just start a film without a script and everyday they'd be talking with the - supposedly - 'screenwriter' about how to make it into a film." Cheung became, depending on sources, the highest-paid female star in Hong Hong, or at least one of the top three ("Maybe not the highest," she says. "I imagine Michelle Yeoh must earn more than me"). As her ex-husband puts it: "In Asia she is royalty - she's like beyond being a superstar." Indeed, while shooting part of Clean in Belleville, a Paris district with a high Chinese population, Assayas's crew had to prevent her from being mobbed. But her fame doesn't mean she's considered out of reach: Chinese audiences, Assayas says, "see stars as semi-gods, but gods who are very accessible. Maggie has played so many ordinary Hong Kong girls, it's part of the reason they feel close to her. They put them on a pedestal and at the same time, they feel they can stop them in the street and say, 'Can we take a picture?' Maggie gets annoyed no end with that." She does indeed: it's a rather enjoyable change to hear a star waxing so openly and indecorously off-message, carping about fans' attentions.

"Before they say hello, the camera's already there," Cheung complains. "I'm always, 'Can I say hello before you take a photo of me?' But they don't care, they just want that photo to show their friend." Attention from paparazzi is even more stressful, Cheung says, tarnishing her return to Hong Kong after five years in France: "They've become so vicious. If you want a normal life, you can't live there." To escape the pressure, she moved to a secluded spot out of town, with a sea view and surrounding mountains, but that didn't help. "After I'd been there two weeks, someone phoned and said, 'Did you read the magazines? They've been spying on you in the mountains - there have been pictures of you at home every day for a week.' And that just shattered my world. I'd built this paradise for myself to have a quiet life - and then downstairs there are three cars every morning. If they find out where my mum lives it's a problem; if they find out where my dentist lives, it's a problem. I just don't want them to find out anything about me. I don't even want them to know what I buy at the supermarket - and they want to know that."

She blames the press for what she sees as a distressing change in Hong Kong culture: the gossip industry, she says, has changed the way people there judge each other. "Young people now growing up - I think it's going to be a disaster, the way they think. It's very hard to find friendship or kindness between people." Even so, her homecoming - especially with her Cannes award, a source of great local pride - has soothed Cheung's relations with her Chinese audience. "Before this award, I felt a distance from Hong Kong people for the last few years, since I moved to Paris. Or they set a distance with me, because they thought I was leaving behind my roots. They think I'm trying to escape to a better place or I look down on Chinese people - it's their little hang-up. But then going back after Cannes, you felt a closeness again - like people want you to belong to them. People would say, 'Our Maggie' - and I love that."

Chinese fans also seem to respect Cheung for not rushing to launch a Hollywood career. She tested for a part in Heat, but reputedly didn't hit it off with Michael Mann. She was to star in Steven Spielberg's planned Memoirs of a Geisha, but won't be in the forthcoming version directed by Rob Marshall, about which in any case she has qualms, since three of the leads are played by Chinese actresses in Japanese parts: "I hate to think that for [Rob Marshall] it doesn't matter, because it does."

These days, while choosing her films sparingly, Cheung is working on "a lot of things outside cinema," she says, including charity events and commercial work: she has been modelling jewellery as "international brand ambassador" to a Swiss watch company whose head she has been dating. And, after her exposure to the indie-rock fringes in Clean, she is tempted to try a singing career of some sort: "If anybody wants me, I'll go for it - I can just open a show for somebody else for 10 minutes or something."

To be honest, judging by her dour, Nico-ish moan when singing as Emily in the film, she might be advised to hold on to the day job for a while yet; in any case, it seems to be holding up just fine.

'Clean' (15) is released on Friday